This Saturday the Hawthorne football team will play Northview (Bratt) for the Class 1R state title at 7 p.m. at Gene Cox Stadium in Tallahassee.
The game will be broadcast on 106.9 FM “I am Country” beginning at 6:30 p.m.
The Hornets (11-0) are in the state championship game for the third consecutive year following a 28-0 win against Blountstown in last Friday’s Class 1R state semifinals.
It was a big night for Eastside transfer Darian Smith-Williams, who scored three touchdowns and continues to make big plays in all phases of the game.
“He’s a dynamic special teams player that has returned multiple punts and kickoffs for touchdowns this year,” said Hawthorne defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins. “On defense he is the glue guy for our team and can be both a physical in the box player, or a coverage safety as he leads us in interceptions. He accepts the challenges placed upon him.”
He also had game-winning catches in overtime against Orlando Christian Prep and at Union County (Lake Butler) with five seconds to play.
“It was a crazy season,” Williams said. “This is part of the reason that I came to Hawthorne. I knew that we would have a championship team and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”
Last year, the Hornets didn’t lose until the final game, falling to Madison County in the Class 1A state championship game.
They’re undefeated, but still seeking their first state title in program history.
They’ve learned a lot from that loss.
“It means a lot to be able to play in the state championship game,” said defensive end Jailyn Ruth, who has over 25 college offers. “I’m a senior and I want to bring one back to Hawthorne. I learned to never underestimate anyone and you can’t take no plays off. The smallest things could lead to very big mistakes so you can’t take any plays off.”
Ruth, who has been injured and held out of practice this week, has over 50 sacks in the last three seasons.
“He’s the leader of the defense,” Adkins said. “He brings the energy that his teammates feed off of. One of the most coachable players I have ever had. Best motor in high school football.”
If defense wins championships, the Hornets have a chance on Saturday. They are allowing just 10 points per game.
Since the loss to the Cowboys in last year’s title game, Hawthorne has been focused on finishing.
“We actually hung up all the Madison County stats from MaxPreps, the score, the big plays they made, we hung that up in our weight room all season,” said defensive tackle Stanley Cooks, who is committed to Georgia State. “Every time we went into the weight room we would look at it and that would just make us go harder.”
Cooks, who was a Mainstreet Daily News All Area selection on both the offensive and defensive lines last season, opens and clogs holes.
“He’s dominant when he wants to be,” Adkins said. “He still doesn’t understand how good he can really be. He accepts the challenges of the coaches and always seems to make plays in big time moments.”
While Ruth and Cooks have been dominating the line of scrimmage, linebacker Tyrique Robinson, a transfer from Santa Fe (Alachua), has led the team in tackles.
“His motor rivals that of Jailen Ruth,” Adkins said. “Very aggressive kid that has learned a lot of football within this year. Very coachable and definitely a sideline-to-sideline type of linebacker.”
Once again the Hornets’ defense will be tested as the Chiefs are averaging 42.5 points per game.
Northview senior Kaden Odom (6’2, 165), a dual-threat quarterback, has thrown for 1,356 yards and rushed for 581 yards (7.4 yards per carry), while senior running back Jamarkus Jefferson (5’11, 210) has carried the ball 271 times for 2,345 yards (8.7 ypc) with a state-leading 41 touchdowns.
Last Friday, Jefferson led Northview with 252 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a 21-11 over Union County in the state semifinals.
“Their offensive line is very physical and enjoys punishing people in the run game,” Adkins said. “Their QB, who also is their main returner on special teams, is probably their best athlete and when people do not account for him, he burns them with his legs. Their wide receivers have good size and attack the ball in the air. They are a complete team and it will take a full four quarters of sound football to compete against them. I think our boys will be up to the challenge.”
Ingram is also concerned about how well Northview runs the football.
“They’re physical and disciplined,” he said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but if there’s a group up for the task, it’s definitely this group.”
Robinson said it comes down to one thing on Saturday.
“Tackling,” said Robinson, who had 17 tackles against Union County and averages 10.6 tackles per game. “They’ve got a big running back, but if everybody does their job we’ll be fine.”
While the defense is in good hands, the biggest question surrounding the offense is the status of quarterback C.J. Ingram, who was injured in the win against Blountstown and was in a boot on the sidelines.
Like Ruth, Ingram, the son of head coach Cornelius Ingram, has not practiced this week. It will be a game-time decision for both players.
If Ingram is unavailable, the Hornets will likely start 8th-grader Nathan Jennings.
However, the Hornets will have plenty of options to take the pressure off of their young QB.
“We have some special running backs who can give us some wildcat personnel and make some things happen so we’re confident,” coach Ingram said.
There is plenty of depth at the position, which is led by senior running back Brian James, who averages 4.5 yards per carry.
The play of the defense sometimes overshadows how important the offense, which averages 28.7 ppg, has been.
“Defense has been solid all year, but there are times when our offense doesn’t get enough credit,” coach Ingram said. “The offense may have an 80-yard or 90-yard drive to eat up maybe 6-9 minutes, and that’s almost a whole quarter, so everyone plays their part and I think we take a lot of pride in playing all three phases because special teams has been electric all year.”
Ingram said the celebration last Friday night wasn’t the same like it was the past two years. The Hornets are focused on the ultimate prize.
“And it felt good,” said Ingram, who noted that two years ago when the Hornets made it to the title game they thought ‘that was it.’
“Sometimes you forget about the championship game. It happens naturally. It was a great feeling to make it but now our kids understand we’ve got a game coming up. It just shows the maturity level of this bunch. It’s a great group of guys that I get to coach.”
Hawthorne hopes to finish the task, but a third straight state championship game appearance is something that shouldn’t be shrugged at.
“It’s been fun,” said Hawthorne coach Cornelius Ingram. “When you do it year in and year out I think some people take it for granted and they really don’t understand what goes into it and how hard it is to even make it back so hats off to my guys and coaches. I’m very, very happy where we are as a football program.”