TIFTON — Athletic seasons have opened in Georgia’s school systems and soon it will be gridiron time, which means a call to action for the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane.
Football has been part of Fitzgerald High School for nearly 115 years. Success is an expectation for Purple Hurricane nation and its leadership is very optimistic about 2019.
“We’re excited about what’s to come,” said head coach Tucker Pruitt. “We want to get better each and every day.” Considering the team advanced to the state Class AA semifinals in 2018, a bright future appears to be in the cards.
Fitzgerald takes the field tonight at Coffee for its lone scrimmage game. The Purple Hurricane next suit up for Bacon County, which comes to Jaycee Stadium Aug. 23 for the regular season opener.
The Hurricane started with two quarterbacks and progressed to rotating three: Justin Reliford, Kody Krause and Damien Devine. All three graduated, leaving Pruitt searching for other options. This time, they may be in the position for more than a year.
Mac Turner and Rashad Davis are juniors. Turner, a transfer from Tift County, has some starting experience and even helped direct the Blue Devils to a win over Valdosta last year. Fitzgerald additionally used Dartavious Tomlin during the spring game.
Graduation hit more than just quarterbacks, however. Fifteen men were seniors on the 2018 club, Pruitt said, and among them were the entire secondary and wide receivers.
Helping fill those roles will be players such as Jakorrian Paulk, Tod Wallace, Demarion Dixon, Deven Durham and another transfer, Chance Gamble. Gamble is the son of John Gamble, a longtime coach who joined Fitzgerald’s staff this year after a stint as an assistant at Upson-Lee. Chance is a junior and Pruitt plans to use him as both a receiver and cornerback.
Pruitt referred to Dixon as his “x receiver.” After a solid offseason, the coach believes Dixon is ready to become the next big playmaker.
Junior Mario Clark can run the ball, play linebacker and safety. He was a big help to the Purple Hurricane running committee last year. “We’re expecting big things out of him,” said Pruitt. Quantavious Pugh was another runner as was Roderick Williams. The latter duo are seniors.
A strength of the team will be the defensive line, and, in particular the “interior defensive line is the strength of our defense.” Fitzgerald is big that department, both in athletes and their abilities.
Tony Duffie, said Pruitt, is “down to about 320 pounds.” Josh Shelton is listed at 280 pounds. Then, there are Maucarie Holmes (260), Altonio Belmer (240), Jay Price (240) and E.J. Lightsey. Price is projected by Georgia High School Football Daily to be All-State as an offensive lineman.
Dee Harper, just a shade behind them at a listed 235, is a defensive end. Pruitt described him as always being in the right place at the right time.
Supporting the Hurricane front are Paulk, Jonathan Thames, Pugh and Clark at linebackers.
Alex Martinez returns to kick. Pruitt said he believes his kick is on a mission to take the team even farther than a season ago. David Vaughn is penciled in as punter.
Pruitt does admit that Fitzgerald is shorthanded. “We do not have a lot of depth,” he said.
Pruitt is entering his third season as head coach of the squad. Following an injury-marred 4-7 season in 2017, the team doubled its wins last year with a 10-4 mark in 2017.
Fitzgerald finished second in Region 1-AA last year. The title game was the regular season finale against Brooks County, one the Trojans took, 28-27. Perhaps angered by the experience, they trounced Harlem 51-14 in the first round before pulling upsets over Swainsboro (27-12) and Rabun County (28-17).
The regular season will be similar to that of last year. Bacon County is the opener, then they head to Ocilla for the annual rivalry game with Irwin County. Irwin won in 2018 for the first time since 1999 and the Hurricane will be anxious to return the favor on enemy ground.
Dooly, Dodge, Upson-Lee and Worth County make up the remainder of non-region. Fitzgerald travels to Berrien Oct. 11 for the start of the 1-AA portion of the season. Two of their four conference games will be at home this time and they are the big ones — Thomasville and Brooks County.
Fitzgerald is the third of a series of five football previews which will run in The Gazette in August. Other schools to be previewed are Irwin County, Fitzgerald and Turner County. Tiftarea Academy was previewed last Friday and Tift County was previewed Wednesday.