11-24 JMA football preview vs Tiftarea.JPG

Junior offensive tackle Landon Byrd (87) looks for someone to block in John Milledge’s 42-6 playoff win over Bulloch Academy Friday. Byrd and the Trojans will be back on their home field this Friday taking on Tiftarea Academy in the state semifinals. 

John Milledge Academy’s residency in the GISA football state semifinals continues this week as the 11-0 Trojans are set to host the Tiftarea Academy Panthers as both teams fight to keep their title hopes alive.

Neither contender is a stranger to the big stage. JMA has made the Final Four round nine out of the last 10 seasons while Tiftarea has been a semifinalist going on four years now. JT Wall’s Trojans have foiled Erik Soliday and the Panthers’ finals hopes twice already in 2018 (24-17) and ’19 (42-14), and they hope to do it again the day after Thanksgiving. 

Speaking of the holiday, it’s often said around Georgia that the only teams still standing this week each year are good ones. While parents and family members may find it tough to reconcile their schedules, there are many who wish they were still trying to balance turkey and tackle football.

“You want to be practicing on Thanksgiving,” Wall said Tuesday. “It means you’re still playing football and you’re one of the best left. You can see practice tempo change and see a little more bounce in these kids’ steps. You would think it gets long and tedious for them having done this since June — we kind of hit that wall a little last week — but then a chill hits the air and you’re able to focus on football more than you can on a regular school day. It’s a good feeling that we don’t take for granted.” 

One thing the 11th-year head coach said in that statement really stands out. His Trojans hit a “wall” last week and were still able to win a quarterfinal playoff game by 36 points. What does that mean for the 6-5 Panthers who enter Friday’s semifinal against an undefeated juggernaut solely focused on football? 

Tiftarea shares a couple of ’21 opponents with JMA — Bulloch and Valwood. The Panthers beat Bulloch 29-21 early this season and vanquished Valwood 32-14 in the regular season finale. On the other hand, John Milledge bashed Bulloch by an average of 32 points across two meetings and claimed a 56-0 road victory over Valwood.

In order to try and pull off what would be a mammoth upset, Tiftarea will likely lean on senior quarterback Dylan Harbort, who’s thrown and rushed for over 1,000 yards this season with 29 combined touchdowns. The Trojan defense allowing just 6.4 points per game will do its best to try and keep Harbort from hitting the 30-touchdown mark. 

“He’s a great trigger man that Coach Soliday is leaning very, very heavily on,” Wall said. “He’s not only leading the team in rushing and throwing, but also in tackles. And he’s their kicker and punter. He wants the ball in [Harbort’s] hands a lot.” 

But it’s going to take more than one player to take down the Trojans. They’ve shown that on multiple occasions this year, shutting down opponents’ top options and leaving them with none. Sometimes it’s in the defensive gameplan, but often it’s simply a matter of getting 11 navy blue helmets rallying to the football no matter where it is on the field. Try as they might, opposing offenses have a hard time accounting for the bigger, faster, stronger players wearing those blue hats. The Panthers will take their swing this week.

A trip to the state finals at Mercer University will be on the line when John Milledge and Tiftarea face off Friday. Kickoff between the Trojans and Panthers is set for 7:30 p.m. at JMA. 

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