Becky Taylor/The Tifton Gazette
This Friday’s road game is not the longest one undertaken by the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricanes, but as of now it is the biggest. Round two of the state Class AA playoffs sees them traveling to play the undefeated Vidalia Indians.
“Thankfully, [the road trip] is not as long as some of the others,” said Jason Strickland, first year head coach of Fitzgerald.
The cities are separated by 61 miles. While not short, it is only half the distance McIntosh County Academy is going to play Canes’ region rival the Brooks County Trojans and only a quarter of the length that Trion is traveling to play the Irwin County Indians in Ocilla.
The Canes have put an impressive record through their 11 games, only losing to Monroe 35-28 in overtime and to Brooks, 27-24. Both games were on the road and actually led most of the way against the Trojans until they were undone by a pair of kick return touchdowns.
Strickland is willing to look past those losses and said “other coach judge you by, ‘are you playing on Thanksgiving?’”
Indeed they are playing in late November, but if they want to keep their season going, they face a monumental task: stopping Vidalia.
The Indians have breezed through their 11 games with only a few close calls. Opening week featured an overtime victory over West Laurens, Benedictine was a 12-7 finish, and Bacon County came the closest, losing 14-10. Other than that, the offense has been here, there and everywhere as they average 34 points per game.
In last week’s game against Westside of Augusta, Juan Foster ran for 139 yards and a touchdown in the 57-0 blowout. He has 1,475 and 11 touchdowns on the season. Quarterback Da’Jarius Mincey only attempted one pass, which was good for 12 yards and another score. The rest of Mincey’s season has seen him connect for 855 yards and 11 more touchdowns, but running is the main part of the offense. Other than Foster, Tra Hardy and Mincey have figured into the scheme and are the school’s second and third leading rushers with 340 and 314 yards, respectively. Combined, their legs have accounted for 16 more trips to paydirt.
“They’re ready to come up and hit you in the mouth,” said Strickland. “They’re probably the largest team we’ll face.”
They also shine on the other side of the ball, as Strickland said, “they play as well defensively.”
Vidalia has only been giving up an average of 8 points per game, with no opponents scoring more than 18.
Fitzgerald’s offensive average is similar — 30 points per contest — but the bigger scoring games have belonged to Vidalia. The Canes have hit 40+ points in a game twice this season; the Indians have accomplished 55+ points for both of their last two games. The Canes, though, have played the tougher schedule. Seven of their regular season opponents have made the playoffs. Vidalia’s number three, their region mates McIntosh County Academy, Benedictine and Bacon.
With the game falling the week of Thanksgiving and holidays, it would not be difficult for players to have their thoughts occupied by other activities not related to football, but the Canes’ coach believes that will not be an issue here. “The kids have been here before,” he said.
This is the 13th consecutive year Fitzgerald High has made the state tournament. In the last four seasons, they have also reached the quarterfinals and even made it to the semifinals in 2008 and 2009. Buford, who has since jumped to Class AAA, knocked them out of contention in both years.
Friday’s winner faces the victor between the Jefferson Dragons and the Westminster Wildcats. If Fitzgerald advances that far, they would play a home game if Westminster emerges and on the road if it is Jefferson.