Three times in the last four years.
Those numbers carry multiple meanings for the 2019 John Milledge Academy football team. First, it’s the amount of times the Trojans have met, and now defeated, the Tiftarea Panthers in the postseason. But more importantly, the statistic reflects JMA’s football dominance in recent years, as this season marks the third time in four tries that the Trojans have advanced to the GISA AAA state championship.
They did so most recently Friday night by beating Tiftarea 42-14 after putting up 14 points in each of the game’s final three quarters. This year marks a first, as John Milledge will match up against Valwood for the title. The two have met in the postseason many times, but never for the championship. The Valiants, hailing from South Georgia, earned their berth in a 42-20 victory over Pinewood. All the marbles will be on the line when the two stalwart programs butt heads inside Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium in Macon next week.
The jubilation one might expect from a team that just advanced to the state final was not present on John Milledge’s sideline Friday. That’s because the team still feels the sting of last year’s state championship loss to Frederica. This group of talented Trojans is looking forward to its shot at getting rid of that sour taste that has lingered for a full year.
“It feels like unfinished business for us,” JMA head coach JT Wall said after addressing his players postgame. “You could kind of feel that here at the end of the game. We’ve been there before, but we want to be there and win it again. I’m proud of the way these guys worked and everything they’ve done so far, but we’ve still got some unfinished business.”
Not only was it a big night for John Milledge as a school and a football program, but also for the head coach. Friday’s semifinal win marked Wall’s 100th as coach of his high school alma mater. Since accepting the head job in 2011 he’s amassed a 100-14 record, which is good for an .877 win percentage. Not too shabby.
Coach Wall’s team got the job done against Tiftarea in basically the same manner it has every game throughout this current 12-0 campaign. The Trojans were the more physical team in every facet — offense, defense and special teams. Running backs Amaad Foston and KJ Jackson rushed for more than 300 yards and four total touchdowns in the victory, running through crater-sized holes creating by the JMA fullbacks and offensive front. Dalton Prestridge is one of two seniors blocking along that offensive front.
“The coaches told us tonight was going to be a challenge because Tiftarea has three good defensive linemen, but we just accepted that challenge,” Prestridge told The Union-Recorder. “We lowered our heads and pounded it and pounded it.”
The two semifinalists sat scoreless through one quarter, and not long before the period ended, Tiftarea got one of its only breaks of the night. The Panthers punted the football away and it hit off an unaware Trojan player, making it a live football. The visitors hopped on it and took over at the Trojan 36 looking to capitalize. They would give it away on their second play after retaking the football, though, when they tried to get tricky. The Panthers attempted a halfback throwback pass, but it was picked off by JMA sophomore defensive back Marcus Prestwood, who, as it turned out, was just getting started. Foston strung together a couple of long runs, then bullied his way into the end zone to put his team on the board early in the second.
The Trojans fumbled their next possession away and Tiftarea was able to capitalize this time around. Quarterback Logan Crosson rolled to his left but threw back to his right to receiver Jayk Sailer for the 9-yard score. The extra point was blocked, though, leaving the visitors a point down.
Good teams answer, and that’s what John Milledge did on its next possession. Quarterback Grayson Hopkins threw a beauty up to Prestwood on the outside, who made a spectacular play on the football. He hauled it in and left his defender in the dirt while he crossed the goal line to give the Trojans the 14-6 lead, which they would take into halftime.
Down 21-6 about halfway through the third, Tiftarea was desperate to get back into the ballgame. What the Panthers got instead was the final nail in their coffin when they faked a punt. The Trojans stayed at home, though, as again it was Prestwood who made a play on the football, picking it off and running it back for the touchdown.
The RB duo of Foston and Jackson would score once more apiece to give John Milledge its final tally ahead of next week’s state championship matchup.
The Valwood Valiants have posted a 10-2 record this season with their losses having come against GHSA Class A-Public school Bowdon, as well as a program out of Florida. They last lined up against the Trojans in 2017 and won 42-7 on their way to winning the state championship. John Milledge, meanwhile, is trying to become the first GISA school to finish a season with a state championship and a perfect record since Wall’s 2016 Trojans accomplished the feat at 14-0.
Asked what he knows about the other state finalist, Wall spoke candidly.
“Not a lot,” he said. “All I know is that we always seem to be on the same course. We always seem to match up in the playoffs. They’ve gotten the best of us, we’ve gotten the best of them. We’ve never played in the state championship, but we’ve played in some semifinal games that probably would’ve been the state championship. I know they’re big, physical and fast. They’ve got D-I athletes out their ears over there, so we’ve got our hands full.”
The GISA AAA championship between JMA and Valwood will be the third game in a championship triple-header at Mercer next Friday night.