The Knights have been building toward this moment for three years now.

Today, Frederica Academy (9-3) plays John Milledge Academy (12-0) for the GISA Class 3A state championship. Kickoff from Five Star Stadium in Macon is set for 7:30 p.m.

After making the quarterfinal round in 2016, and a semifinal appearance a year ago, Frederica returns to the biggest stage for the first time since winning the only state title in program history in 2012.

“I think it’s another business trip; it’s the business trip for them,” said Knights head coach Brandon Derrick. “We’ve been building for this the last few years, and we came up short a little bit last year. We felt we should’ve be in it. This year, we’ve punched the ticket. Now we’ve got to go enjoy the moment, but also play the game.

“I feel like the kids have been pretty focused about all of it, and they’ve done a really good job preparing this week.”

Frederica has hit its stride since its regular-season loss against John Milledge, winning the Region 2-3A championship and its first two playoff games by an average margin of more than 34 points per game.

The Knights are coming off their most dominant performance of the season after beating the Heritage Hawks 53-7 in the semifinal round to set up a rematch against the Trojans.

“We’ve been peaking at the right time,” Derrick said. “You always talk about how you don’t want to play your best football in the middle of the seasons, you want to wait to play it at the end. I really think we’ve been playing it the last few weeks.

“That loss to John Milledge kind of woke us up a little bit and we went into playoff mode: winning the region championship and then playing in the playoffs.”

John Milledge won the first meeting between the programs 14-13 in overtime, snapping Frederica’s six-game winning streak in the process.

Under Armour All-American Jashawn Sheffield left the game with an injury early in the second quarter, and the Knights eventually fell on a failed two-point conversion after matching the Trojans’ touchdown in overtime.

The loss could have been a blessing in disguise, leading the coaching staff to tweak its schemes and personnel in response.

“We kind of loss a little physical presence on the perimeter, being physical out there blocking,” Derrick said. “We’ve made some adjustments. I think it was good for us as coaches, finding the right adjustments, moving some people around up front.

“They did a good job against us defensively. Don’t take anything away from them. They’re a very, very good defensive football team and they play well.”

Now, like in the quarterfinals against Valwood, Frederica has the chance to avenge the loss when it matters most.

John Milledge plays a ball-control style of offense and will likely look to limit the number of possessions in the game. Frederica needs to be efficient and make the most of each offensive possession against a defense that has held its opponents to 10.2 points per game.

“I think our kids know the obstacle at hand going in,” Derrick said. “They know that we’ve got a tough challenge, but when you know you’re opponent, you feel a little bit better about it, I guess, than the uncertainty of somebody.

“Our kids understand what the challenge is going to be, and I expect our kids to rise to the challenge and be ready to play. They know it’s for all the marbles.”

While the Knights’ high-flying offense has received much of the attention this year — and for good reason, they’re averaging 42.6 points per contest — it’ll likely be their defensive performance that determines the outcome of the championship game.

Frederica’s defense has allowed just 17.9 points per game and it’ll need to play some of its best ball of the season to get John Milledge off the field and give its offense the opportunity to play fast.

“Defensively, it’s been our cornerstone all year,” Derrick said. “We’ve kind of talked about it, defense wins championships, offense sells tickets. Everybody loves to see those big numbers, but that defense has played really well all year.”

Strong play from the Knights’ front seven has forced opponents to throw against a talented, athletic secondary in order to keep up. It’s been a fool’s errand for most opposing offenses.

Last week, Heritage completed its first three passes before Frederica’s defense tightened the screws and forced incompletions, and two interceptions, on the Hawks’ final nine attempts.

“When you get to the back end of our defense, we’ve got a lot of speed back there, athleticism,” Derrick said. “When you’ve got a couple of guys that are already committed to Division I schools, and your safety is just as fast as those guys are, we’ve got some guys that are really good on the backend, so it becomes a challenge to throw on us.”

Derrick feels that if his team plays sound defense by wrapping up and rallying to the ball, he likes their chances of bringing a state championship back to the Golden Isles.

“Your making your mark is what we say,” Derrick said. “We’ve made the march, now we need to make our mark. They know that. It’s not something we’ve had to reiterate to them a lot.

“I feel like they’ve been preparing for this the last two or three years.”

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