The thought first struck Mark Freeman while the Thompson High football head coach sat in his truck outside of the Hoover Met. On that October evening, his team had just finished off and held off perennial power Hoover, 32-25, in a game that decided the Class 7A Region 3 championship.
His mind started churning after the buses carrying his players and members of his coaching staff disappeared.
“I really felt, in my heart, that we both would do what we had to do, to play again,” said Freeman, who was fresh off directing the program’s first victory over Hoover. “That program has sustained for 15, 17, 19 years as the dominant program and you can’t argue it. We faced the dominant program and we passed the test. Leaving there, you’re happy, but it’s like it starts to hit that it’s week nine and we’ll meet them again.”
What are his thoughts four weeks later?
“Here it is,” Freeman said.
Hoover and Thompson will get together on Friday night at Larry Simmons Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. and a trip to Tuscaloosa it at stake. The winner of the Class 7A semifinal punches a ticket to Bryant-Denny Stadium to play in the state championship game 10 days later.
Can we call this Game of the Year II?
While that moniker may fit, the truth is that this one is bigger than the first meeting. This time, the loser packs up the equipment.
Freeman is consistent when identifying the key to his team winning a football game.
“Get off the field on third down,” said Freeman, whose team advance to the semifinals with playoff wins over Huntsville and Mountain Brook. “Our stuff starts if we can get off the field on third down. If we can go fast, we’re going to go fast. A lot of times we get up on teams. Even if we don’t score, if we can get off the field on third down, we’re starting to get in a rhythm.”
Thompson (12-0) largely did that in the Warriors’ victory over Hoover. The Bucs ran just 52 plays, compared to 72 by the Warriors, and Hoover was 3 of 8 on third downs. The Warriors were able to use their extra plays to compile 374 yards of offense.
For Hoover, perhaps the biggest key on Friday is taking care of the football. The Bucs (9-3) had some success running the ball, gaining 221 yards on 34 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run, but had trouble holding onto the football in the first meeting. Thompson forced and recovered three fumbles and should have had another, but the call was missed by the referees.
One of the fumbles, forced and recovered by safety David Douglas, ended a Hoover drive when the Bucs appeared on their way to building a 20-3 lead in the second quarter. Another was forced by K.J. Robertson and also recovered by the Thompson linebacker, who returned it to the Hoover 1-yard line.
Thompson also needs to retain the momentum and confidence that came with the way the Warriors ended the first game. There was a 99-yard drive that provided the winning points and an ensuing three-and-out by the defense.
“Hoover hasn’t lost many games at the Met, period,” Freeman said. “I think I’m safe to say, nobody has ever driven 99 yards on a winning drive there. That’s special. When they haven’t given that up, maybe forever, and we were able to not score once but score twice in that situation. That was huge. But then putting it in their hands and stopping them. I think our kids remember that.”
Robertson also remembers when things didn’t go so well in that game.
“How we ended that game is how we’ve got to start every game,” Robertson said. “We look at our first drive or first three drives against them and we look at our last two drives against them. The last two drives, we just completely dominated. That’s how we have to go into this game and every game really. The first couple of drives, they hit us in the mouth and we had to take it a little bit. That last drive showed everybody how good we are and how good we can be.”