One year after losing to Flint River in the regular season then nipping the Wildcats in the state championship game, the Jaguars were upended in their quest for history.
Flint River's Ethan Strickland scored five touchdowns Friday night to lead the Wildcats to the Georgia Independent Schools Association Class A championship with a 41-13 win.
"It's a heck of a feeling," Strickland said. "I didn't expect this at all. I thought it was going to be a close game."
Thomas Jefferson (13-1), the two-time defending state champion, lost its bid for a record fifth title since 1998. The Jaguars also were denied their quest to become the first Class A team to win three consecutive titles.
Last season, Thomas Jefferson lost the region title at home to Flint River before going on the road to defeat the Wildcats in an overtime thriller in the championship game.
Three weeks ago, the Jaguars won at Flint River for the region title. But the Wildcats (13-1) claimed the top prize rushing for 221 yards on 36 carries and stifling Thomas Jefferson's vaunted running attack.
"They're a great bunch of guys," Thomas Jefferson junior tackle Ben Phillips said. "I wouldn't want anybody but them to wear those rings. I hope they enjoy them. We took one from them; they took one from us. That's just how it is. You've got to live with it."
Strickland, a senior running back/defensive back, rushed for 136 yards on 24 carries. He had four short touchdown runs, but his biggest score came on defense early in the fourth quarter when he picked off a Chip Johnson pass at midfield, reversed direction and went the distance for a 50-yard touchdown. Flint River led 28-7.
"We've been watching him for two years and he's just an outstanding athlete," Thomas Jefferson sophomore running back Derrick Mathis said. "He plays as hard as he can."
Mathis entered with more than 2,300 rushing yards the previous 13 games. In the first half, he was limited to 23 yards on eight carries. He finished the night with 16 carries for 46 yards and no touchdowns.
Hampered by poor field position, Thomas Jefferson's offense mustered just 127 yards of total offense.
In the first half, the Jaguars mounted a 13-play, 65-yard scoring drive to tie the game at 7. On third-and-11 from the 15, Johnson found Phillips on a tackle-eligible play, a quick pass over the middle. Phillips scooted up the seam for the touchdown and Mathis added the extra point with 6:22 left before halftime.
"I never thought it would come to me," Phillips said of his first career touchdown. "I just thought I'd show them I could do it. Maybe we'll run it again next year."
Flint River responded in a hurry. Strickland took the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to the Thomas Jefferson 27. Ten plays later, on third-and-goal from the 1, Strickland broke through off right guard for his second rushing touchdown of the half. Trent Bishop added the extra point and the Wildcats went into halftime with a seven-point cushion.
Flint River scored on its first drive of the second half. Then, the Wildcats broke the game open with Strickland's interception return.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org
FLINT RIVER 41, THOMAS JEFFERSON 13
Flint River 7 7 7 20 -- 41
Tho. Jefferson 0 7 0 6 -- 13
FR--Ethan Strickland 1 run (Trent Bishop kick), :23
TJ--Ben Phillips 15 pass from Chip Johnson (Derrick Mathis kick), 6:22
FR--Ethan Strickland 1 run (Bishop kick), :59
FR--Ethan Strickland 2 run (Bishop kick), 8:15
FR--Ethan Strickland 50 interception return (Bishop kick), 10:08
FR--Griffin Hale 11 run (kick failed ), 8:47
FR--Ethan Strickland 2 run (Chris Gregg kick), 6:09
TJ--Josh Godbee 8 run (pass failed), :39
First Downs FR9 TJ10
Rushes-Yards FR36-221 TJ39-82
Passing Yards FR0 TJ45
Comp.-Att.-Int. FR0-1-0 TJ3-8-1
Fumbles-Lost FR0-0 TJ2-0
Punts-Yards FR2-33 TJ3-37.3
Penalties-Yards FR4-20 TJ3-11
RUSHING--Flint River: Ethan Strickland 24-136, Chet Harris 7-53, Griffin Hale 5-32. Thomas Jefferson: Derrick Mathis 16-46, Tom Oglesby 11-14, Josh Godbee 9-45, Taylor Barrentine 1-(-1), Chip Johnson 1-(-4), Tre Wheeler 1-(-18).
PASSING-- Flint River: Chet Harris 0-1-1 0. Thomas Jefferson: Chip Johnson 3-8-1 45.
RECEIVING--Flint River: none. Thomas Jefferson: Justin Williams 26, Ben Phillips 1-15, Tre Wheeler 1-4.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Flint River running back/defensive back Ethan Strickland picked off a Chip Johnson pass at midfield and returned it for the back-breaking touchdown, giving the Wildcats a three-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.
WHY FLINT RIVER WON: The Wildcats had good field position all night with five of their six scoring drives starting in Thomas Jefferson territory.
WHY THOMAS JEFFERSON LOST: The Jaguars never established their running game. Standout back Derrick Mathis was held to 46 yards on 16 carries with no touchdowns.
STAR OF THE GAME: Strickland. The Flint River senior rushed for 136 yards with four short touchdown runs, and he added the interception return for a touchdown and also had two long kickoff returns.