Tucker football coach Franklin Stephens appreciates the irony.
A fumble last season in the final minutes of a Class AAAA semifinal kept Tucker out of the championship game. This year the ball bounced Tucker’s way and a fumble by Northside Warner Robins in the state semifinals Dec. 2 helped propel the Tigers into the AAAA championship.
Tucker (14-0) will try for its second state title when it faces Lovejoy (14-0) for the Class AAAA championship Dec. 9, 8 p.m., at the Georgia Dome. The Tigers won a state championship in 2008 and were runners-up in 2007.
This is Tucker’s first state championship berth since winning the title in 2008. Lovejoy, however, is in the midst of its best season in school history and is playing in its first title game.
In 2010, Tucker held a 19-14 lead over Starr’s Mill with less than three minutes remaining in the game and was trying to run out the clock when a Tigers’ running back fumbled. A few plays later Starr’s Mill scored on a 26-yard touchdown pass and won 20-19.
On Dec. 2 Tucker appeared to be facing the same fate as Starr’s Mill from the year before. The Tigers trailed 16-10 and Northside Warner Robins had driven to the Tucker 2-yard-line with less than five minutes to play.
However, on the next play Northside’s Marte Polk fumbled after being hit by a Tucker defender. The ball was knocked into the end zone, where Tucker linebacker Justin Rivers scooped it up and ran 100 yards for a touchdown. The extra point gave Tucker a 17-16 lead that it kept by virtue of two defensive stands in the final minutes.
“We’ve been on the other side a few times,” Stephens said. “The Lord decided to smile on us Friday night. Last year against Starr’s Mill, we were the team that could have put the game away. However we fumbled with less than two minutes to play and they scored. … We were fortunate that the good Lord had the ball bounce for Tucker this time.”
The Tigers’ path to the state championship game has been dramatic over the past two weeks. Before the Tigers’ beat Northside, they had to rally from a 14-0 deficit to beat Flowery Branch 42-34 in the third round.
After the first two games of the season—an 18-7 win over Southwest DeKalb and a 15-11 victory over Marist—the Tigers cruised their final eight regular season games, outscoring the opposition 348-81. Only two teams in that span managed to score more than a touchdown.
Tucker enters the game with one of the best running attacks in the state. The Tigers have amassed 63 rushing touchdowns and averaging 300 yards rushing per game. Dallas Rivers leads the team with 17 rushing touchdowns while Rivers, Yusuf Minor and Jordan Landry each have rushed for more than 750 yards this season.
Lovejoy also has been dominant this season. The Wildcats, from Clayton County, have allowed more than six points in a game only twice and have eight shutouts this season.
But the easy road down the stretch hasn’t taken the edge off for the Tigers, Stephens said.
“The kids understand what we’re trying to get done in practice,” Stephens said. “We play at a high tempo in practice so that when the playoffs come around we’ll be ready. It takes a great amount of effort and sometimes you have to have some luck. Now the kids understand how to prepare for the playoffs.”
Preparation is something that Tucker has done well since Stephens took over in 2007. Tucker had established a tradition of reaching the playoffs in the mid-1990s, but Stephens has taken the success to a new level with the team’s first state football title. The coach is 63-6 in five seasons at the school.
“I feel good about [winning another championship] but anything can happen,” Stephens said. “You’ve got to be blessed, like we were Friday night.”