Frederica Academy’s head football coach Brandon Derrick learned a lot about his team the first two weeks of the season.
The Knights lost the first game to GHSA Class A power Charlton County in a game where the Indians’ depth wore down Frederica’s players in the 28-21 loss.
The Knights lost the second game of the season 7-6 in overtime to Valwood, the team that knocked them out of the GISA Class 3A semifinals in 2017 on a late touchdown.
Derrick wanted to schedule tough opponents early in the season to prepare his team for region play and wasn’t deterred by the losses. Players learned that success doesn’t come easy. They continued to work on the field, in the weight room, and in meetings with coaches to watch film and discuss game plans.
The team’s offense came alive, averaging more than 51 points the next six games before losing to an undefeated John Milledge Academy team 14-13 in overtime.
The Knights ended the regular season with a 7-3 record, but they were undefeated in region play to earn a No. 1 seed. When the brackets were announced, the team knew the path to a state championship game was not going to be easy despite a first-round bye.
Their first opponent in the quarterfinals was Valwood, the team that had defeated them in defensive battles twice in the past year. The Valiants were seeking a three-peat, but they had no solution to the running game of Isaiah Jackson, who carried the ball 15 times to gain 230 yards and score six touchdowns in a 60-27 win.
The team’s offense continued to roll when the team traveled to Newnan to face Heritage in the state semifinals. The team’s offense remained hot, despite the frigid weather, with temperatures in the mid 30s and a blustery wind. And the defense was dominant in the 53-7 win to advance to the state championship game.
The opponent in the championship game was another familiar foe, an undefeated John Milledge Academy team that handed the Knights their third loss of the year a month earlier.
The game was held in Five Star Stadium at Mercer University in Macon. While the site was neutral, the drive from Milledgeville is only 30 miles and and grandstands held many more Trojans fans.
They were loud on the first drive of the game until it ended with a fake field goal attempt that was read perfectly by the Knights speedy defense. Trojans fans had few reasons to cheer the rest of the game.
The Knights scored later in the quarter before the floodgates opened. By halftime, Frederica had taken at 28-0 lead and appeared on its way to its second state championship in six years. But Derrick was not going to take the four-touchdown lead for granted. He may have heard stories about what happened when Frederica Academy won its first state title.
In 2012, the Knights trailed in the championship game against Robert Toombs Christian Academy 30-7 after three quarters. Derrick wasn’t the coach at the time, but the Knights could have given up and agreed to a running clock. Instead, Frederica stormed back in the final quarter, scoring the next 27 points to win the game 34-30.
On the opening play of the second half of Friday’s game, Derrick drew up a trick play — a double reverse flea flicker — that he said never worked in practice but worked in games for some odd reason. The pass from Jaylin Simpson to Patrick Brunson was perfect for a 57-yard touchdown. It also took any hope John Milledge had of coming back. The Knights scored two more touchdowns and the defense shut to the Trojans in the convincing 48-0 win to clinch the team’s second state football title.
Though outnumbered, the Frederica fans who traveled from the Golden Isles were given plenty of reasons to cheer and they showed it throughout the game.
After the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard, fans watched as players shook their heads in disbelief before reality sunk in that they had reached the goal every team dreams about at the beginning of the year.
Players and fans gathered around midfield for the presentation of the championship trophy. Players also gave their head coach the obligatory Gatorade bath as he lofted the trophy over his head.
Everyone lingered on the field taking photos and celebrating the end of the season. Finally, they were ushered off the playing field and onto a grassy area near the parking lot, where they continued to celebrate in no hurry to leave. And for good reason.
I also learned a lot about the Knights football team this season.
As a sports reporter, it’s a lot more fun covering a winning team than a losing team. Unfortunately, even the vast majority of winning teams are disappointed when they end up losing the last game of the season — even if it’s for a state championship.
One of the most awkward moments is asking a coach about a playoff loss. To their credit, coaches are always gracious and don’t dodge questions during a disappointing loss. One of the tough jobs is to console players after an emotional loss.
It’s even more awkward asking a team captain a question after a playoff loss, only to have the player burst into tears after a disappointing game. When that happens, the player takes a minute to regain composure to answer some questions.
There were no awkward moments Friday night and the only tears were tears of joy. Players and coaches were happy to talk about the hard work they put into winning a state championship and the memories they will carry the rest of their lives.
For the Frederica fans lucky enough to watch the game, they also left lifelong memories. I’m one of them.
Thank you for a great season.