In between handshakes, hugs and back slaps on Tuesday morning, Mark Freeman took time to soak in the scene as his Thompson High football team boarded the buses headed to a date in the AHSAA Class 7A championship game in Auburn.
Thompson’s band played and people lined the walkways as far as the eye could see. It was a noisy and emotional send off for a team playing in the school’s first state title game since the lone appearance in 1982. The streets were also lined with Thompson faithful – many holding signs of support – as the buses made their way to the interstate.
It was a scene that Freeman never imagined, even though he’s been building toward this moment since he took over the program four years ago. But it was a scene that also epitomizes the very reason that he chose to come to Alabaster.
“I knew that town had enthusiasm, I knew that the town supported the school, even in the years that weren’t the best,” Freeman said. “Today was just a proud day, it’s just a culmination of knowing the work put in to get to this day. Seeing the people so happy, it’s tremendous.”
Actually, the culmination comes on Wednesday night at 7 when the Warriors square off with unbeaten Central-Phenix City at Jordan-Hare Stadium on the Auburn campus.
Both teams are coming off an extended rest after punching their championship game ticket with Class 7A semifinal victories on Nov. 23. Each team used a late touchdown to advance. Thompson’s Shadrick Byrd supplied the game-winner with 21 seconds remaining, at the end of an epic 85-yard drive, in the Warriors thrilling 31-28 semifinal victory over Hoover. Central-Phenix City used a 49-yard pass from LSU commit Peter Parrish to tight end Kameron Mason to escape with a 34-27 win over Lee-Montgomery.
Freeman said his team needed the rest.
“We’ve been going at this for over 20 weeks, in season, and then off season for God knows how long,” Freeman said. “I think we did a great job planning on the days we were going to take off. The one thing, I think we will be fresh. We had a really good day yesterday.”
For the Thompson players, just like it’s been all season, the time together over the past week and half has been a mixture of hard work and good times.
“We try to keep a loose organization, discipline is not loose,” Freeman said. “We tell the kids that is not a gray area on our discipline or what we expect you to do. They adhere to our rules. In return, we have fun. I tell our kids, if we can’t have fun here and smile and laugh with what we’re doing then there is something wrong. We have a lot of fun, we do, but they do a great job and they know when it’s time to go. I don’t think they’ll be fazed by the moment at all.”