TIFTON — “Whatever it takes, however we can,” said Tiftarea Academy head football coach Erik Soliday. That sums up the Tiftarea experience for the last few weeks.
In the win or go home part of their season, the GISA Class AAA state tournament, they keep squeaking through. Field goals have been the difference in two straight three-point victories.
A turnover on downs via sack led to a win over Heritage in the quarterfinals. The week before, it was a sure touchdown turned into a touchback against Bulloch Academy that began the game-winning drive.
Tonight, the day after Thanksgiving, the Panthers will see if they can do it again. They will take on John Milledge Academy on the road at 7:30 p.m.
Tiftarea has things to be thankful for this fall. Jayk Sailer’s kicking foot is one of them. Two weeks in a row, Sailer has kicked that game-winning field goal in the last minute of the game. Last week’s short boot led to a 24-21 upset over Heritage, a team that had beaten them 29-6 earlier this season.
Now they’re here. Milledgeville.
It’s Tiftarea and John Milledge, just like it was last year in the semifinals. The locations are reversed; last year the Trojans went to Chula. John Milledge’s record is the same, 11-0. Tiftarea’s is slightly different, 8-3 to last year’s 11-0. But here they are, just the same, after two close calls in the tournament.
JMA is coached by former Georgia standout J.T. Wall. Wall is 99-14 through 10 seasons, with one state championship in 2016. Wall was there when Tiftarea made its last appearance in Milledgeville. That is one the Panthers would like to forget, a shutout loss.
“They do what they do,” said Soliday, whose team will be facing an opponent that has not given up a single point since Oct. 11. He considers John Milledge a “great team.”
Amaad Foston is the Trojans’ most touted player. The 200-pound junior had 1,581 rushing yards through nine games, the last time John Milledge updated statistics on MaxPreps. Last week against Southland Academy, Foston gained 138 yards and scored two of their three touchdowns.
“He’s a tremendous player,” said Soliday.
All of JMA’s touchdowns came on rushes last week — Kelvin Jackson had the other — but Soliday said they have a good quarterback in Grayson Hopkins. Hopkins has only a handful of starts under his belt after transferring from Georgia Military College last year, but has already notched a four-touchdown game.
Soliday said the Trojans do “a little bit of everything” on offense, but “They’re content to run that big running back.” Tennessee is reportedly among those who have sent Foston scholarship offers.
Defensively, John Milledge likes to stunt their defensive linemen, he said. It’s a big line and no doubt a productive one. Two of the three leading tacklers are listed as linemen: Je’Mazin Roberts and Carson Dyer.
“You have to find ways to create first downs,” said Soliday. Tiftarea did just that against Heritage. Banks Johnson caught a long pass on a lineman-eligible play. Logan Crosson hit long passes to move the Panthers down the field after they stopped a potential game-winning drive with a sack.
Sailer stepped up with big catches, not to mention the field goal. He and Brock Hammond had to step up as receivers with Dylan Harbort out. Soliday didn’t expect Harbort to be back in uniform tonight. “At this time of the year, you get some injuries,” he said.
“Next man up,” he said, was the team’s mentality.
Beyond the big plays, Soliday felt Tiftarea did many things right in other areas. The Panthers did not have much in the way of negative plays. He also thought his defense played well.
Adam McKinney turned in a strong game on offense, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark in rushing for the season. He scored once last Friday. Crosson ran for a touchdown and Sailer caught a pass from him for the other.
Friday’s other semifinal pits Valwood (9-2) against Pinewood Christian (9-1). The state championship game will be Dec. 6 at Mercer University.