Tallulah Academy repeats as 8-Man champion

Published 3:07 pm Friday, November 18, 2016

CLINTON — In all of their years together, Tallulah Academy’s football players have been through a lot.

They’ve endured the hopelessness of losing seasons, the confusion and uncertainty of coaching changes, the joy of winning big, and everything else along the way.

On Friday, they made one more memory that will last a lifetime.

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Ryan Hodge rushed for 252 yards and three touchdowns, and senior quarterback Luke Fortenberry added 54 yards and two scores on the ground as Tallulah Academy beat Franklin Academy 42-20 in the MAIS Eight-Man championship game at Mississippi College.

“It’s awesome. I can’t describe the feeling,” said Tallulah’s Brice Wood, a senior tight end. “We’ve been working for it a long time, and I’m super excited. We knew we had the most talent. We just had to keep our heads up and play hard every game.”

Tallulah (12-0) finished off an undefeated season with its second consecutive state title. The Trojans, who have 13 seniors on their 27-man roster, have won 25 of 28 games since moving to the eight-man division in 2013 and have reached the championship game all three seasons.

Friday’s victory in the championship game was the crowning achievement for the seniors of both a remarkable three-year run and a seven-year odyssey. Since coming into the program as seventh-graders in 2010, they’ve weathered 19 coaching changes, four losing seasons, one one-win season, and the switch to a new style of football.

“I’ve got no regrets. Ten years from now, I’ll know I did everything I did to be the best I could be,” Hodge said. “I’ll miss it for my guys. We’ve been through peewee. Ever since day one. We don’t recruit. I’ve been here since pre-K3. Growing up and being in the program for that long, and being around the school, it’s just great. I know everybody up there (in the stands).”

In a game befitting their journey to the top, the Trojans won Friday by first overcoming adversity and then adapting by breaking out a new trick at the perfect time.

Franklin (8-5) scored on two of its first three possessions to take a 14-6 lead on a 33-yard touchdown run by quarterback Wesley Cirilo on the first play of the second quarter. Hodge’s fumble near midfield set up Franklin’s second touchdown drive.

Cirilo finished the game with 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries.

The Trojans knocked down a pass on the two-point conversion attempt, however, and the tide turned almost immediately. Fortenberry capped a quick five-play, 50-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak and ran around the right side for the game-tying two-point conversion.

Franklin held the ball for nearly six minutes on its next possession but got nothing out of it. Cirilo was sacked by Parker Morgan on fourth-and-15 from the Tallulah 36 to force a turnover on downs. Hodge broke loose for a 60-yard touchdown run on the next play, and then ran it in for the conversion with 1:50 left in the half to put the Trojans ahead 22-14.

They never trailed again.

“We knew they were never going to give up. They were going to play four quarters hard. It was mainly focusing on what we had to do and not letting it get to us,” Wood said. “Even if we had the lead, we knew they weren’t going to give up. We had to keep pounding it on them.”

The Trojans received the second half kickoff and went with a new look on offense — Hodge lined up at quarterback and running from the wildcat formation. He carried it five times for 42 yards on a six-play drive, finishing with a 5-yard TD run.

Tallulah forced another turnover on downs on Franklin’s next possession, and stuck with the wildcat. Hodge carried it four straight times to move the ball to the Franklin 10, and Joshua Collins finished things off with a 6-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal to make it 34-14.

Hodge said that was the first time this season the Trojans have used the wildcat formation.

“When we opened it up in wildcat and just started pounding it down the field and scored, we knew right then we could roll it on over. This is the first time we’ve run that,” Hodge said. “I told (coaches), ‘Why don’t you just snap it to me?’ I caught one one-handed, but it was something I’ve wanted to do because you get another blocker. It’s the easiest spot to run the ball, is quarterback. He put it in for me and I thanked him for it, too.

“It’s hard to defend when you’ve got seven blockers,” Hodge added. “It’s one-on-one. You’ve got two guys who are supposed to make the tackle if you just hand it off to the running back, because the quarterback has to stand there. There’s no way he can get out in front and block.”

Tallulah’s defense forced three four-and-outs and one turnover on Franklin’s five second-half possessions. Cirilo did score on a 1-yard run to get Franklin within two touchdowns, at 34-20, with 2:08 left, but the last two minutes of the game were largely a victory lap for the Trojans.

Fortenberry scored on a 37-yard run with 1:51 remaining, and the defense forced one more four-and-out after Franklin got the ball back. On the last meaningful play, the sophomore Morgan, junior Chris Bowling and senior Ethan Beene all converged on Cirilo for a sack.

It was both a fitting end and a new beginning. The Trojans will have to replace half their roster next season as they chase a threepeat, but the sack showed the cupboard won’t be completely bare.

“We knew we could do it. It was the fact of getting out here and doing it,” Hodge said. “When you have a group like we have, ever since we were sophomores, juniors and now seniors, we had the numbers. We knew we could go do it, and we just had to go do it. This team next year is going to have a tough time. They’re going to have to replace a lot of bodies. It’s just great to end like this.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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