Two lopsided wins didn’t necessarily tell Thompson High head coach Mark Freeman everything he needed to know about a team that has a variety of first-time starters.
There is no doubt, however, those answers could come at some point on Friday night with two-time defending state champion Hoover on the opposite sideline at the Hoover Met.
“I know our kids are going to play hard, there is no doubt about our effort,” said Freeman, whose team outscored James Clemens and Foley, , to begin the season. “This week will tell us a lot about who can play in big games. No matter what, we’re going to get better from this. It’s really a blessing to be a playing a good football team in week three, because we can take things we’re short at and build over the next seven weeks. The goal is to win enough games and get into November and have a lot of experience behind us.”
The goal this week, though, is to find a way to beat Hoover for the second straight year in the regular season. The Warriors closed out Class 7A Region 3 play last November with a 32-25 victory over the Bucs in the ninth week of the regular season at the Met. It was not only Thompson’s first win over Hoover but it also secured the school’s first Region 3 title.
Hoover came back to knock off Thompson in the Class 7A semifinals at Larry Simmons Stadium. The Bucs went on to capture the state championship.
Freeman didn’t spend much time rehashing last year’s games during his team’s preparation this week.
“We focus more on what we’ve got to do, because, a lot of those players on both teams are gone,” Freeman said. “Hoover is a different offensive team than they were last year, in a lot of ways. We’ve got to be better (defensively). Offensively, a lot of guys who helped us win games are gone. We just focus on ourselves and we focus on that we’re playing a good opponent. We can’t have useless penalties, we can’t have mental breakdowns, that’s the biggest thing. If we don’t have mental breakdowns, we’ll have a chance.”
Defensively, it starts with finding a way to make Hoover one-dimensional, which certainly isn’t easy. The Bucs have perhaps the state’s top wide receiver in five-star Auburn commitment George Pickens and an outstanding running back in Larry McCammon.
“It puts a lot of pressure,” Freeman said. “Their running back is one of the best running backs in the state. He runs downhill, he is really strong. One guy doesn’t bring him down a lot. We’re going to have to account for him, we’re going to have to account for George. And, then, of course, the quarterback can run it.”
The quarterback is junior Robby Ashford, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior, who opened the season with a huge game in a win over Pinson Valley but wasn’t as sharp in last week’s loss to nationally ranked St. John’s of Washington, D.C.
Offensively, the Warriors need to establish the run to help open up the passing game for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Hoover kept Pinson Valley quarterback Bo Nix, an Auburn commitment, off balance with pressure up front. If the running game, which is led by Shadrick Byrd, can get going, it will be harder for the Bucs to pressure Tagovailoa.
If Tagovailoa gets time, the Thompson offense is hard to stop. In two games, Tagovailoa has thrown for 650 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Junior receiver Michael Pettway is his favorite targets, with 211 yards overall and two touchdowns in each game. Sophomore J.B. Mitchell has three touchdown receptions.
Time will tell how much success each of the standout skill players have on Friday night. Obviously, that depends on the play up front. No matter what happens, though, both teams will have to move on quickly from the highly anticipated showdown.
“Win, lose, draw, whatever happens, this is week three,” Freeman said. “It’s the next week and it’s a region game. We’ve got to win some region games, so we’re in the top four. If we beat them, you have to be careful about getting a false sense of good. If we don’t have success, we got to see how we can bounce back from adversity.”