It’s not unusual that there is a lot at stake in a Hoover-Thompson football game. It’s expected.
For the past five years, the two teams have played twice a year – as regular-season Class 7A, Region 3 foes and in the state playoff semifinals. In the past three, Thompson won that semifinal on the way to a state title. In 2017, Hoover won the playoff game – after losing to the Warriors four weeks before – and its most recent state championship.
Twice in the five seasons, Thompson swept the series – in 2019 and 2020 – on the way to state titles.
Friday night at 7, the Bucs will carry an 8-1 record and No. 2 ranking in the Alabama Sports Writers Association poll into Warriors Stadium in Alabaster to meet No. 1 Thompson for the region title. The Warriors are 7-2 after losing two straight to open the season to the current No. 1 teams in Georgia (Buford) and Tennessee (Lipscomb Academy). Hoover has won eight straight after dropping its opener 17-14 to Auburn in the AHSAA Kickoff Classic in Montgomery.
Thompson’s three straight state crowns are just part of a near-lock on Birmingham metro teams’ dominance in the big-school (7A beginning in 2014, 6A before that) state final appearances. The Hoover juggernaut started under Rush Propst and continued by Josh Niblett produced 11 state titles and five runner-up finishes since 2000.
Thompson is the only other Birmingham metro team to win the big-school crown since the turn of the century, but Spain Park was runner-up in 2015. Clay-Chalkville won it in 1999 and Vestavia Hills took the title in 1998.
The Hoover dynasty torch has been passed to Wade Waldrop to lead the Bucs’ program. He understands the expectations that come with the job.
“It’s as advertised,” he said. “The level of competition every week, the level of coaching, the commitment of the players you’re playing against, their toughness, it’s as advertised. It’s what I think everyone outside of this area thinks. It’s a playoff game every week.
“It is fun. It just tests you as a coach, as a leader and it tests your kids. Everything about our program gets tested every week. You learn something about where you are as a program. You see what you’re getting good at and also where you’re not making strides and where you need to make improvements,” said Waldrop, who is 108-76 in his 17th year as a head coach with stops at Chelsea, James Clemens and Florence.
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Mark Freeman, who is 243-54 in his 24th year, won four AISA state championships at Bessemer Academy and two at Spanish Fort before arriving at Thompson in 2015. He understands what his counterpart is working for at Hoover.
“I think in a program like that, the biggest thing is whether you can sustain and keep it going,” Freeman said. “Wade has done a really good job keeping it going. They have great athletes and a great program. They had a hiccup early, but have won the rest of them. It’s a testament to Wade and the other coaches and the program. The coaches have done a good job and their players play hard.”
Both teams are relying on stout defenses this season with Hoover giving up 9.1 points per game and Thompson allowing 14. In the Warriors’ seven wins, the defense has surrendered just 9.2 points a game.
“I like old-school football,” Freeman said. “I don’t know how good we are on offense. We’re really good some weeks (Thompson scores 29.9 a game), but some weeks, we’re not. We’ve found ways to win. In the past, we’ve been really good on offense, so in some areas we are behind.”
In the three championship seasons, Thompson averaged 45.4, 43.1 and 42.7 points a game. Last year’s defense was the stingiest of the three, giving up just 7.1 points per outing with five shutouts. The 2022 team has one shutout, a 51-0 rout of Oak Mountain two weeks ago.
“If both defenses play the way they’ve played and play the way they are capable of playing, offense is going to be hard to come by,” Waldrop said. “Every play is going to matter. This game, if you watch games from the past, crazy things happen. We have to be prepared if it turns into a faster-paced game.”
Hoover’s front seven has been up to the challenge this season, led by senior defensive linemen Jordan Norman (11.5 tackles for loss), Andrew Parrish and Chaleb Powell and junior Michael Nixon. Linebackers Kaleb Jackson (56 tackles, 3 sacks), Bradley Shaw (41 stops, 2.5 sacks) and DJ Estes (15 tackles for loss) are the top tacklers for the Bucs. The secondary features Jay Avery (30 tackles, 3 interceptions), Keith Christein (22 tackles) and Devan Carlisle (14 stops, 1 interception).
“Our front seven has played well this year,” Waldrop said. “I thought when I got here, that group would be pretty good. I think we’re playing eight or 10 guys there. Coach (Joshua) Reeves and coach (Danny) Stiff have done a good job creating competition and depth.
“We’ve done a good job of stealing reps for the kids to create depth and that goes a long way toward staying healthy.”
Hoover’s offense – that averages 29.6 points a game – relies on its ground game, averaging 195.6 yards a game with LaMarion McCammon leading the way with 650 yards on 92 carries with 8 touchdowns. Standout Ahamari Williams has 650 yards on 92 attempts, but he has been sidelined with an injury and his status for Friday is not certain.
“I think Ahamari will be able to play,” Waldrop said. “He’s been nursing a foot injury, but he’s been moving around a little bit. I hope to see him Friday night.
“One position on the field where we do have some good numbers is at running back. We’ve got guys who can step in and play.”
Quarterback depth has been necessary for the Bucs as season starter Brewer Smith was lost to a collarbone injury on Sept. 30 against Oak Mountain. Freshman Noah Schuback, the likely starter, has thrown for 229 yards and a pair of touchdowns in four games.
“With their defense, I hope they fumble on their own 5 or 10 and set us up,” Waldrop said. “We’ve got to be willing to grind it out. Nobody is scoring a bunch of points on them. They are super talented and do a great job. We’ll have to try and maintain good field position throughout the night.”
Thompson’s defense is led by Clemson commitment Peter Woods, who has 53 tackles – 17 behind the line of scrimmage – and 6 sacks. He’s joined up front by Dylan Campbell (8 tackles for loss) and Caleb Ballard (51 tackles). Alabama commitment Tony Mitchell (50 tackles, 5 pass break-ups) heads up a secondary that includes sophomore 4-star recruit Anquon Fegans and Payton Lewis.
Junior 3-star quarterback recruit Zach Sims has passed for 1,152 yards and 6 touchdowns and run for three more. AJ Green has 12 rushing touchdowns and 789 yards on the ground.
Freeman said losing two straight to open the season was a learning experience for Thompson.
“We found out a lot about some of our people. Adversity brings out a lot in people. It’s easy to get caught up and take winning for granted,” he said, reflecting on Thompson’s 62 wins over the past five seasons. “There is not a guaranteed win on our schedule or on Hoover’s schedule.”