The saying around the state goes that if you’re still practicing Thanksgiving week then you must be a pretty good football team.
John Milledge Academy head coach JT Wall, his staff and his players are putting the turkey on the back-burner this week as the Trojans (11-0) are preparing to host the Tiftarea Academy Panthers (8-3) Friday in the GISA AAA state semifinals. Winner goes on to compete for the 2019 state championship at Mercer University next week while the loser will close the book on a strong season.
This marks the seventh time in eight years the Trojans have made it to the semifinals with 2017 being the lone exception.
“These kids have bought in and worked hard,” Wall said on what has brought his program back to this prestigious position. “Just like every other year, we try to get better each week and we feel like these guys have done that. We had a lot of guys get a lot of snaps last year, which has helped. We feel like we’ve got pretty good depth at some spots.”
Wall’s team isn’t just getting it done on one side of the football. His players are dominating in every facet of the game, but the JMA defense has been particularly noteworthy. The unit pitched its seventh shutout of 2019 and fifth in a row in Friday’s 21-0 quarterfinal win over Southland. Under the direction of defensive coordinator Justin Mills, the Trojans have surrendered a total of just 37 points all season long, good for an average of just over 3 points per ballgame.
“I’m glad we don’t play against them,” Wall said of his team’s stalwart defense. “I can’t say enough about Coach Mills and that defensive staff — how they prepare and get these guys ready to play. We’ve had multiple guys play multiple positions on that defense, and it seems like a different guy steps up each week. That makes it really hard for opponents to focus in on one guy for us defensively. They’re playing well as a unit all the way from the D-line to the secondary and everything in between. They’re doing a good job of believing in the system and just flying around to the football.”
The JMA defense has been down multiple starters this season due to injuries, so operating at 100 percent could make it even more scary. Unfortunately for the Trojans, that’s just not a possibility anymore this year. Free safety Patrick McDonel is still working his way back from a broken collarbone and junior lineman Kevin Kitchens had been out since Week 3 until his return to the field last week. His reappearance means a lot to the defense that lost another big piece a few weeks ago when lineman Carson Dyer tore his ACL.
“We found out throughout the year that you can never replace a guy like Kevin Kitchens because he’s such a great athlete and the same thing could be said about Carson Dyer,” Wall said. “He’s one of the best D-linemen in the state if not the best, in our mind. He’s a heck of a player that’s hard to block so having Kevin come back and be able to play some snaps helped us out. Jayson Wright, Jordan Stephens and Landon Courson all stepped up too trying to fill that void.”
Testing that tough Trojan defense this week will be the Tiftarea Panthers of Chula located — you guessed it — just outside of Tifton. The Panthers, the only non-region champion remaining in the AAA bracket, surprised many last week by going on the road and beating Heritage 24-21. Those same teams met about a month prior in the regular season and Heritage took that contest 29-6.
“I think Heritage was the favorite, but you’ve also got to look at it as this was the second time those teams have played,” Wall said. “It’s hard to beat a good team twice, and Tiftarea’s a real good team. They made some adjustments from the first time they played.”
This marks the second straight year JMA and Tiftarea have been matched up in the semifinals. The Trojans took last year’s bout 24-17 in Chula on their way to finishing the season as state runner-up. Both the Panthers’ 2019 playoff wins have come on the road and both have also come by just 3 points. Last round up at Heritage the game was tied 21-all with over three minutes to play before Tiftarea drove down and kicked the game-winning field goal with under 10 seconds to go.
“Coach Soliday (Erik, Tiftarea head coach) does a great job down there and he has a history of being better the second time he plays a team. We haven’t played them since last year in the semifinals. We’re trying to preach to our guys that they’re probably out for some revenge too. That was their team last year. They had 13 or 14 seniors, so that was supposed to be the year they won it all and we went down there and upset them. We know they’ve been chewing on that loss for a year, and we know how that feels,” Wall said referring to his team’s 2018 state championship loss.
The JMA head coach says he expects to see a balanced offense out of the Panthers and a stout defensive line featuring three of the best players his team has seen all year. It’ll be their job to stop the physical running style of junior Trojan running back Amaad Foston, an athlete no team has really been able to slow down for four full quarters this year.
Playing in the other GISA AAA semifinal Friday will be Valwood and Pinewood, both champions of their respective regions. This will be the first time those two teams have seen one another this season. JMA handed Pinewood its only loss of 2019 back on Sept. 20 in a 38-6 final while the Trojans and Valwood have not faced off since 2017. Before Coach Wall’s team can worry about a state championship opponent though, they’ll have to win at home this week.
Kickoff between the Trojans and Tiftarea Panthers is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday night at John Milledge.