Troup ready for semifinal showdown
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
They expected to be here.
When the Troup Tigers embarked on a new season, they believed they were one of the best Class AAAA teams in the state.
The Tigers then went out and delivered a statement performance in their season opener, crushing a strong Ridgeland team 32-0.
Troup hasn’t looked back since.
With last week’s hard-earned 20-17 road win over Cairo, Troup (12-1) has advanced to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs for the second in school history.
If Troup can travel to Roswell and knock off Blessed Trinity (13-0) today, it will advance to the state-championship game to play either Cartersville or Marist.
“I think they fully expect to win, and that’s a good thing that we’ve created that kind of culture,” said Tanner Glisson, Troup’s fourth-year head coach. “I’m sure Blessed Trinity has that, too. So we’ll tee it up. It’s the biggest game around here in a long time.”
That the Tigers are in this position is all the more impressive considering where the program was a few years ago.
Troup struggled through a 1-9 season in 2015, but is has won 29 games the past three years, including a program-record 12 wins this season.
While all that is noteworthy and impressive, Glisson said no one is spending time reflecting on past accomplishments.
“Right now we’re just trying to focus on what’s in front of us, and at the end of the season, regardless of how it plays out, we’ll sit back and look at it and smile about where we’ve come, how far we’ve come,” Glisson said. “Right now it’s just a grind getting ready for a good football team.”
That the Tigers are among the last four teams standing isn’t a surprise.
The Tigers went 9-3 a year ago and made it to the second round of the state playoffs, and most of the key players from that team returned.
Troup had two relatively suspense-free victories in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
After beating Oconee County 42-28 in the first round, Troup led 41-0 at the half on the way to a 53-14 victory over Pickens County.
That set up last week’s showdown against Cairo, and it was a battle.
Cairo had the ball at the end with a change to tie it with a field goal or win it with a touchdown, but Troup’s defense was up to the challenge.
The clock ran out after a Cairo incomplete pass, and Troup had the narrow win.
It was an emotionally-draining victory, and it was the sort of game teams often need to win on the way to a championship.
“The sky’s the limit for us right now,” said senior wide receiver Jamari Thrash, who had the go-ahead touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter.
It was an impressive road win over a quality team led by a coach in Steve DeVoursney, who led Griffin to a 15-0 record and a state title in 2013.
“That was a huge one, number one beating a coach that’s got a state-championship ring, and we beat them in a hostile environment,” Glisson said. “So it was good for us. We’re excited to be one of the only four left.”
Thrash said the pressure the players are put under during practice helps them deal with those challenging situations during a game.
“We try so hard in practice to battle through adversity,” Thrash said. “We put ourselves in late-game situations.”
Now, Troup will take aim at a Blessed Trinity team that has been the favorite to win it all since the season began.
Blessed Trinity stunned Cartersville in the second round a year ago on the way to the state championship, and it brings a 13-0 record into today’s game.
“They’re a very solid, well-coached football team,” Glisson said. “But we feel like we are, too. We’ll see.”
Blessed Trinity is a complete team.
The Titans average nearly 38 points per game, and they’re holding opponents to 13 points a game.
Senior quarterback Jake Smith has been terrific, completing 98-of-154 passes for 1,523 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he has only thrown one interception.
Ryan Davis is Smith’s favorite target with 40 catches for 701 yards and seven touchdowns.
Steele Chambers headlines the rushing attack with 1,221 yards on 160 attempts with 20 touchdowns.
Blessed Trinity’s stout defense will be put to the test trying to put the brakes on Troup’s high-octane offense led by junior quarterback Kobe Hudson.
Hudson, a wide receiver as a freshman and a sophomore, has settled into his new role and been one of the state’s best quarterbacks.
Hudson is a true two-way threat, capable of beating teams with his right arm, or his legs.
Hudson has completed 158-of-270 passes for 3,152 yards and 29 touchdowns, and he is Troup’s leading rusher with 1,206 yards on 133 carries with 16 touchdowns.
Hudson is surrounded by play-makers, including a pair of senior receivers in Joko Willis and Jamari Thrash who are tied for the team lead with 34 catches apiece.
Thrash has 29 touchdown catches the past two seasons, including 10 this year, and Willis has eight scoring receptions.
Ja’Rell Smith has 33 catches for 770 yards with six touchdowns, and he also showed off his passing ability in the Cairo game when he threw a 6-yard touchdown to Thrash.
Mark-Anthony Dixon has 16 catches for 231 yards with three touchdowns, and Tyree Carlisle has 16 catches out of the backfield with a touchdown.
Troup has been much more effective running the ball this season, with three players having run for at least 600 yards.
Junior Trey Williams has been outstanding, running for 888 yards on 173 attempts with seven touchdowns, and Carlisle has 610 yards on 93 attempts with 10 touchdowns.
Leading the way is a veteran offensive line that includes Gabe Hubbard, Steven Meser, Jay Brodie Messer, Hunter Bass, Colby Harry, Will Cooley, Tyler Kitches and Riley Bowles.
Starter Michael Irvin was lost with an injury in the Cartersville game, but Troup has the depth up front to overcome the loss.
Bass said the close-knit nature of the offensive linemen helps the unit succeed.
“It really plays a role in being able to trust the person next to you,” Bass said. “You really have to depend on them to do their job, so they can do theirs. It really helps out.”
While Troup’s defense garners plenty of headlines, the defense had done its part as well.
Facing elite offenses throughout the season, the Tigers are holding opponents to 18 points per game.
It’s a complete defense, with talented and experienced players at every position.
The defensive line is a deep position, with Andy Boykin, Kaliff Thornton, Jeremiah Holston, Royce White, Monta Hall and Jordan Adams holding things down.
Boykin, a junior who has offers from multiple major-college programs, scored a touchdown on a fumble return against Oconee County.
Troup’s most impactful defensive player could be outside linebacker King Mwikuta, a senior who has been a regular presence in offensive backfield’s throughout the playoffs.
Devon Hill, who returned an interception for a touchdown against Pickens County, has been a force at outside linebacker as well.
Senior inside linebacker Kevin Martin is seeking to lead the team in tackles for a third straight season, and Jatavian Smith and Jabraylin Gooden have been terrific at linebacker as well.
The anchor of the secondary is senior Nick Ligon, and senior defensive back Alonzo Ogletree leads the team in interceptions.
Jace Godwin, Manderious Dix and Tyree Carlisle has also been getting it done at defensive back.
Ogletree said a key to the defense’s success is the way the players trust the coaches.
“We came together as a unit with our coaches and everything, and we’re just bought into the scheme,” Ogletree said.
In the special-teams department, Helsyn Martinez has been terrific at place kicker, and Mark Anthony Dixon has been an effective punter.
Glisson said every player, regardless of their role, is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team keep the season going.
“At this point, these guys just want to win,” Glisson said. “They want to keep playing ball, and they’re willing to sacrifice or do whatever it takes to keep playing. When you have an unselfish group, and that’s the way they feel, it’s fun.”
TROUP VS. BLESSED TRINITY
WHEN: Today, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Blessed Trinity
WHAT: Semifinals of Class AAAA state playoffs