Blessed Trinity will visit Mary Persons in the state semifinals on Friday in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinals. Like I did with my St. Pius at Marist preview on Tuesday, I am going to breakdown this semifinal matchup in sections to hopefully do it justice.
Blessed Trinity (11-2) at Mary Persons (11-2)
This is the sixth straight season that Mary Persons has been in Class AAAA. The Bulldogs have compiled a 62-14 record (all under head coach Brian Nelson) and just won their 11th playoff game in this span last week in the quarterfinals. Like Mary Persons, Blessed Trinity has also been a playoff mainstay. In his seven years as Titans head coach, Tim McFarlin has compiled a 72-19-1 record with 16 postseason victories.
This rematch is no coincidence.
Last year was the first season that Blessed Trinity competed in Class AAAA. Once the two successful programs were placed in the same classification their paths were bound to cross.
The paths crossed in last year’s quarterfinals when Mary Persons hosted Blessed Trinity for the first-ever meeting between the programs. Mary Persons was 10-2 with a loss to Peach County and a loss to Houston County in the Corky Kell Classic on its resume. Blessed Trinity’s only losses came to out-of-state opponents and they also took a 10-2 record into the matchup. As a result, neither of the schools had a loss within the classification when they met on Nov. 25, 2016 at Dan Pitts Stadium.
There were plenty of other intriguing storylines surrounding the matchup. The winner was almost guaranteed to have to face defending state champion Cartersville the next week and this game was an opportunity to see if a team could emerge that could compete with the Purple Hurricanes. Blessed Trinity’s youth on offense and the success they were already having with a sophomore starting at quarterback, running back and receiver was also a site to see. Especially since the Titans were about to face a talented Mary Persons defense loaded with experience, including current University of Georgia defensive end Malik Herring.
The game proved to be intensely close from start to finish and never got away from either team. A Jake Smith to Ryan Davis touchdown gave the Titans a 7-0 lead before Mary Persons’ Zach Harvey tied the game with an early second quarter touchdown run. Mary Persons grabbed its first lead of the game (14-10) with a 9-yard touchdown run with 4:30 left in the half, but Blessed Trinity kicker Brooks Hosea cut the deficit to 14-13 with his second made field goal. Blessed Trinity reclaimed the lead in the third quarter with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Will Carlton and Steele Chambers ran in the 2-point conversion to make it 21-14. Mary Persons used an 80-yard drive to tie at 21-21 with 4:19 left in the third frame. Hosea made his third field goal to briefly put Blessed Trinity up 24-21 before Caleb Speir connected with Roger Akins for a 69-yard Mary Persons touchdown to put the Bulldogs back up 28-24 with 10:44 left. Hosea’s fourth made field goal of the game cut the deficit to 28-27. Mary Persons had the football at midfield with under a minute left and could’ve iced the game with a first down but instead saw a comedy of errors gift-wrap Blessed Trinity an opportunity to steal the win. A busted play on third-and-1 led to a false start penalty that set up an 8-yard punt on fourth-and-6. Trailing 28-27, Blessed Trinity took over at the 46-yard line with 31 seconds to go. The Titans got all the way down to the Bulldogs’ 11-yard line with seven seconds left on the clock when Hosea trotted out to the right hash to attempt the game-winning kick. Instead, the West Point signee's kick went too straight and ended up missing just right as Mary Persons burst into celebration.
THE ROAD SINCE
Mary Persons was knocked out in the semifinals the following week by Cartersville 38-17 and the Bulldogs were about to face more turnover on their roster than any previous offseason in Nelson’s tenure. The program lost 26 seniors, 18 of them starters. Junior quarterback J.T. Hartage would have to replace Speir after going just 6-of-12 passing for 113 yards and touchdown in his entire time as the backup. Quen Wilson had shown promise as a sophomore coming out of the Mary Persons backfield and he had a solid performance against Blessed Trinity with his 155 rushing yards and rushing score off 14 carries. But there was still a lack of experience returning in the passing game as well as three juniors that would be starting for the first time on the Bulldogs offensive line.
But here we are. Mary Persons is Class AAAA's only remaining public school and the only semifinalist from last season to return to the Final Four. Friday will mark the first semifinal game played at Dan Pitts Stadium since 1993 when the stadium’s namesake led the Bulldogs to a 14-13 win over Washington County. And once again, the Bulldogs have advanced to the semis without a loss to a single Class AAAA opponent on their resume. Their region unbeaten streak grew to 16 games with a clean sweep of Region 2-AAAA this season and they have done it with a roster that, like Blessed Trinity’s, is loaded with juniors.
Hartage has rushed for seven scores this season while completing nearly 69 percent of his passes with a stellar 18 touchdown passes to three interceptions ratio. On the ground, Wilson is coming off a career-high 213 yards and four touchdown performance in Mary Persons’ 51-32 quarterfinals win over Jefferson. The defense has also shown maturity in the playoffs. After shutting out Carver-Columbus in the first round, the defense held Baldwin to just 56 total yards in the second half of its 39-14 second round victory. Last Friday, Jefferson was forced to commit five turnovers.
As impressive as Mary Persons has been, Blessed Trinity’s playoff run has undoubtably been the most significant out of any of the remaining semifinalists. The Titans' postseason also opened with a first round shutout (35-0 over Oconee County) and then they stifled two-time defending state champion Cartersville on the road 21-17 in the second round. Cartersville managed just one offensive touchdown in the defeat. The Titans followed what will be considered one of the state's biggest playoff upsets for years to come with a 43-13 beatdown over Thomson the following week.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Coach Nelson faced a younger version of this Blessed Trinity squad last year and already knows the incredible challenges his team faces this time around. Mary Persons on the other hand will be much-different than last year's squad and coach McFarlin will expect the Bulldogs to try to use that to their advantage. As for my own expectations, I expect another strong and focused performance out of Blessed Trinity. That being said, we should watch this game closely no matter what the score ends up being, because both of these teams are on a path to be even better in 2018.