The Piedmont Academy football team will look to win its first state championship in almost a decade when the Cougars host Thomas Jefferson Academy on Friday.
It is a rematch of last year’s GISA Class A state championship, which was won by the Jaguars. Piedmont (6-3 overall) has already gained some measure of payback winning the 2020 regular season matchup 28-7 between the schools which allowed the Cougars to host this year’s title contest.
Despite the victory in the regular season meeting, Piedmont coach Will Johnson said he is expecting a much closer battle on Friday.
“It is going to be a fight until the end,” Johnson said. “We can’t expect to go in and win easily. This is going to be a war in every aspect.”
The programs have been familiar foes of late but the Cougar coaching staff is leaving no stone unturned in preparation for this contest.
“We have seen every film on them for the last three years,” Johnson said. “So many people are looking forward to this game. We expect a big crowd for both schools. It will be a great environment.”
The players in the trenches will be key for Piedmont. Center Mark Hicks, guards Ridge Stroud and Ryan Reeves along with tackles Mason Tanner and Jackson Welch will help clear the way offensively for the Cougars. Welch is the lone senior up front.
Piedmont has amassed 3,000 yards of total offense in 2020.
“We couldn’t do it without our linemen,” Johnson said. “They have really progressed during the season.”
Luke Welch, Bradley Greenwood and Ryan Holder are the team’s triple receiving threat. Welch has 29 receptions for 427 yards and four touchdowns while Holder has 19 catches for 297 yards with four scores. Greenwood has six touchdowns with 15 total receptions for 273 yards.
Tanner Locklear has rushed for 215 yards and two touchdowns on 41 carries. He also has 14 catches for 110 yards and two scores.
Thomas Jefferson (8-3 overall) will look to use its option-based offense to control the clock and to limit Piedmont’s number of offensive possessions.
“We have to limit mistakes,” said Jaguars coach Terence Hennessy. “In the game in the regular season Piedmont handled us. We made way too many errors. We had close to 100 yards in penalties. When we have opportunities, we have to take advantage of them.”
Thomas Jefferson has benefited from a balanced rushing attack. Senior fullback Matt McNeely has close to 700 yards on the ground while halfback John Durden has 550 yards with 10 touchdowns. Two other players have also registered approximately 500 yards on the ground.
Defensively, the Jaguars will look to slow down Piedmont quarterback Chris Pittman. The senior has passed for 1,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 yards in 2020. He has 13 rushing touchdowns and 19 passing. Pittman has 1,001 rushing yards with another 1,268 in the air.
“He is really a good football player,” Hennessy said. “We’ve known that for a long time. He throws it tremendously well but he can also hurt you running the football. We hope to be able to contain him. I don’t think we can stop him completely. We will try to keep Piedmont’s offense off the field and limit his opportunities to hurt us.”
In the trenches, Thomas Jefferson does not have a senior in the starting lineup. Hennessy said the coaching staff made some personnel changes after the loss to Piedmont in the regular season.
The Jaguars now start a freshman at center, a guard and junior at the guard spots and a sophomore and junior at tackles.
“We did a lot of soul searching after the regular season loss at Piedmont,” Hennessy said. “The coaching staff had to figure out what we were doing wrong. The changes have helped.”
Thomas Jefferson’s coach said he did like playing the championship at Mercer but also sees the benefits of being back on a high school campus.
“I do like the fact we are kicking off at our regular time of 7:30,” Hennessy said. “Still, Mercer was a great site. I know I am 0-2 in state championship games at Piedmont so that probably has me leery of playing there.”
Hennessy was the offensive coordinator for Edmund Burke in 2010 and 2011 when Piedmont won both times.
In preparing for the offensive scheme used by the Jaguars, Piedmont defensive coordinator Matt Britt said knowing your responsibilities is only part of the equation.
“You also have to be prepared to step in if someone else doesn’t do what they are supposed to do,” Britt said. “We have a familiarity with their scheme and what they are going to try to do. Halftime adjustments will also be key. Having already played them once this season we hope to be able to start the game strong defensively.”
In the regular season matchup, the Cougars used some different schemes defensively and has success.
“We caught them by surprise but we won’t be able to do that again,” Britt said. “It is going to be a group effort. Our defenders on the edge probably have the toughest job. Our linebackers have to be ready for the dive, the quarterback run and the pitch. We have to make them have difficulty in making their reads. They really only use the flex bone, Wing T and wishbone. Those are the sets they use. You can throw the football out of those formations but they don’t do it much.”
Limiting gains on first and second downs will be key for the Piedmont defense.
“You want to get them behind the chains but their fullback is very good,” Britt said “If they get three yards on first down and three yards on second down then they are ahead of schedule. The penalties hurt them in the regular season game. That is going to be the biggest way you get them off schedule. Their quarterback doesn’t drop back to pass so you won’t have any sacks.”
Jackson Welch leads the team with 50 tackles and two forced fumbles. Locklear has recorded 38 tackles and an interception while Hicks has 21 tackles.
Johnson said Coach Hennessy does a great job with his offensive scheme.
“He has been running it since I was in high school,” Johnson said. “They are always ready to play and will be physical. In games like this there will be five plays for both schools which determine the winner. Last year we didn’t make those plays and they did.”
Kickoff at Cougar Field is set for 7:30 p.m. Follow@CovNewsSports on Twitter for game coverage.