The tears in Thompson High football head coach Mark Freeman’s eyes had nothing to do with what the Larry Simmons Stadium scoreboard read, even though the 31-12 Class 7A semifinal loss to Hoover meant the Warriors fell game short of playing for their ultimate goal this season.
The tears had more to do with saying goodbye to a season that was special in so many ways, perhaps most notably by the way it brought the Alabaster community together.
“You can’t take anything away from our kids, they fought their guts out,” Freeman said. “Some of these kids were 0-10 three years ago. I’m proud of our kids. I’m proud of where the community and the program has come. Who would have thought four years ago that this place would be packed out and we’d be coming in off a 12-0 season?”
He then reached into his right pocket and came out with something to prove how much this Thompson Warriors football team has meant to Alabaster.
“Let me tell how much it means to this community,” Freeman said. “People don’t know how much it means. I had a veteran, from our community, come in before the game (and) give me this – a Purple Heart. You don’t think it means something to this community, what these kids have done? That’s what it’s about. God be the glory. I thank our kids, I thank God, for such a great year.”
Unfortunately for the Warriors, they picked a bad time to make some uncharacteristic errors. And the tone was set early. On the opening offensive play of the game, Thompson quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa tossed the ball forward to Sam Reynolds and he raced around right end for a 26-yard gain. Thompson followed with an illegal motion penalty and a lost fumble by Shadrick Byrd.
It was just the start of one step forward, two steps back for the Warriors.
The Thompson defense got the ball back quickly on an interception of a tipped ball by safety Myles Brown. The Warriors’ offense moved the ball well on the following drive, reaching the Hoover 26-yard line but Byrd was tackled for a 4-yard loss on 4th-and-1.
Two plays later, Hoover receiver George Pickens took a short pass in the middle of field and made several Thompson defenders missed on his way to a 69-yard touchdown.
It was that kind of night for the Warriors, who trailed, 17-0, at halftime.
Thompson’s defense played inspired early in the second half. The Warriors, who were led all night on defense by senior linebacker Jalen Rayam, forced a three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half. The Warrior defense got a first down before stalling and turned the ball over on the Thompson 41-yard line after a fourth down incompletion.
Hoover covered the distance in six plays with Larry McCammon scoring the second of his three touchdowns.
The Warriors responded by marching 70 yards with Tagovailoa scrambling 13 yards for the touchdown with 4:14 left in the third quarter. After a failed two-point conversion pass, the Warriors, trailed 24-6.
Thompson trimmed the deficit to 24-12 on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to Ahmad Harris-Edwards with 10:01 left in the game. Another two-point conversion pass failed.
On the ensuing drive, the Warriors looked they forced another three-and-out. On fourth down, Hoover punter Will Reichard ran toward left end. He narrowly escaped what would have been a tackle behind the line of scrimmage by Thompson’s Grant Bivins and gained more than enough to keep the drive alive. By the time Hoover finally gave the ball up there was just over four minutes remaining.
Hoover eventually added another score and began its celebration.
Tagovailoa was 20-of-43 for 196 yards with the touchdowns. Harris-Edwards didn’t have a great night with seven catches for 42 yards but he does end the season with a state record 120 catches. Rayam had a marvelous night, collecting 14 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss.
It wasn’t the way the Warriors wanted to end the season but Freeman stressed to look at the big picture.
“A game doesn’t make a season,” said Freeman. “That’s a cliché, but, really and truly, it doesn’t.”