By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
The last time Robby Ashford left Warriors Stadium in Alabaster, the Hoover quarterback felt the pain of a broken foot.
The senior signal-caller had staked the Bucs to a lead against Thompson before the home team stormed back for 48-30 victory on Sept 6.
The rematch in the Class 7A state semifinals last Friday would produce a greater pain, the anguish that came with falling short of the annual Hoover goal of playing for a state championship.
For the second year in a row, the Bucs will be home for the state title game because Thompson knocked them off, this time with a 35-21 score.
Thompson (11-1) will play Central-Phenix City (12-1) in the Class 7A championship game for the second consecutive season on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Ashford came out of the semifinal loss in the final minute and wept in the arms of head coach Josh Niblett. As the Hoover coach turned his attention to the closing seconds of the game, Ashford continued to cry, lamenting missed opportunities and the reality that he had played his final high school football contest.
“This hurts a lot more than me breaking my foot,” Ashford said when he finally composed himself. “It’s the last high school game I’ll ever play at Hoover. I’m thankful for the four years I had here. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Ashford, an Ole Miss commit, said he’s not usually an emotional guy.
“It just has to be a certain thing and this is one of them,” he said, “knowing I’ll never put on a Hoover football jersey again.”
Friday’s outcome marked the fourth time in the past six meetings Thompson has gotten the best of Hoover. Before that, the Bucs were 21-0 against the Warriors.
The Bucs reached the Class 6A or 7A championship game 16 times since 2000 and won the blue state championship trophy in 11 of those appearances.
They had some chances to take control in the semifinal after the first half ended in a 14-14 tie. Hoover got two defensive stops early in the third quarter. First, they blocked a punt and got the ball at the Thompson 19. Later, Kory Chapman picked off Warriors quarterback Sawyer Pate.
Each time, Hoover came away with no points on their red-zone opportunities, throwing an interception and missing a field goal.
“If we can come away with points there, we may have an opportunity to maybe grab the momentum,” Niblett said. “We let them grab it back.”
The Warriors responded with an 80-yard scoring drive after the missed field goal, capped by Pate’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Michael Pettway to take a 21-14 lead.
The Bucs mounted a scoring threat of their own, but Thompson’s Antonio Mitchell’s 89-yard pick six interception return pushed the Warriors’ lead to 28-14 with a minute and a half to go in the third quarter.
Ashford, who finished with 298 yards on 17 completions in 41 attempts, hit R.J. Hamilton with a 20-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 28-21. But Ashford also threw three interceptions, including the third one that set up Brandon Franklin’s 1-yard touchdown run for the Warriors for the final margin.
Pate, meanwhile, completed 20 of 28 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.
“Our defense played their tails off tonight to give us an opportunity,” Niblett said. “I thought we played well on special teams. But there were times we needed to make a few plays and we couldn’t make a play.”
Niblett turned emotional as he talked about the players who played their final game for the Bucs.
“I love these seniors,” he said. “This time last year they made a decision that they were going to get back, give themselves an opportunity. I just hurt for them.
“The biggest thing is it’s going to hurt right now. It’s going to hurt bad because they felt like they were supposed to win.”
Ashford said he hated to have done the work he and his mates did and not come out on top.
“At the end of the day, things happen for a reason,” Ashford said. “I’ve just got to see what God’s got in store for me. I was blessed to play with these guys and plus have the coaching staff I was able to play under for four years.”