Last December, the Central-Phenix City Red Devils ended an unforgettable season by throttling Thompson 52-7 in the Class 7A state title game. The two teams will square off again for the championship tonight, but the Red Devils know better than to expect another blowout in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Central (12-1, 6-0) faces off with Thompson (11-1, 6-1) at 7 p.m. in the opening game of the AHSAA’s Super 7 high school football championship series. Both teams clinched their spots in the championship game on Nov. 22, when Central shut out Auburn 38-0 and Thompson topped Hoover 35-21.

The Red Devils had the tough task this postseason of beating two teams for the second time, but they made it happen in wins over Prattville and Auburn. The playoff victory over the Tigers featured an electric passing game led by quarterback Tucker Melton and receiver E.J. Williams as well as a stellar showing by the Red Devils’ defense, which held Auburn running back Aaron Diggs to 44 rushing yards.

“We knew (Diggs) was going to be a real big factor in the game, so the whole week we just keyed on him,” said Central linebacker PJ Ramsey, who has 98 tackles and seven tackles for loss in his senior season. “We were basically just saying, 'We're going to have to be physical this game. We're going to have to play assignment football and force him to basically go east-west on us.’ That's really more of our strong suit, going east-west. When we got him to go east-west, we knew we had him. We had to shut him down.”

The championship game berth was another milestone in a season in which the Red Devils have had a few hiccups that they quickly overcame.

Central opened the season by jumping ahead of Hoover before a late goal-line fumble and a last-minute Buccaneers’ drive left the Red Devils with a 17-14 loss. The team buckled down and won six straight games after the loss then found itself in a first-half shootout with Lee-Montgomery, which Melton said forced everyone to wake up and realize they weren’t playing up to their potential.

The Red Devils ended that game with 28 unanswered points. From that halftime break to today, Central has been playing nothing short of spectacularly.

“We had to grow up really fast after the Hoover game. We had to realize we can be beat. I think that was a big wake-up call for us. We've just been grinding ever since,” said Melton, the Bowling Green commit who has 1,427 passing yards and 18 touchdowns this year. “I think after the Lee game — after the second half — I don't think anybody's even came close to stopping us. Hopefully it's the same way Wednesday. We've matured so much that I don't think anything can get in our way.”

The Warriors, of course, plan to have something to say about that.

Central head coach Jamey DuBose praised Thompson senior quarterback Sawyer Pate, who has thrown for 2,885 yards and 39 touchdowns after replacing Alabama signee Taulia Tagovailoa for the Warriors. He also pointed to Thompson’s receiving corps as being dangerous, particularly senior receiver Michael Pettway, who enters the game with 1,106 yards and 16 touchdowns.

DuBose said the Warriors’ defense might not have the big names it boasted last year, but he sees a unity between the 11 players that can be particularly dangerous for opposing offenses.

“I think this year they've got more of a togetherness as a team. When I watch film of them, last year I saw a lot of tremendous athletes running around on the field. They looked good and they played good, but they didn't play together like I'm seeing right now when I put the Thompson film on. That's scary for me,” DuBose said. Their motto is 'One team, one heartbeat' or something like that, and I think you can see that. You can see it when you put the film in. I see one heartbeat, and I see one unit out there playing together like they're on a mission.”

DuBose stressed the importance of winning the turnover battle, which they did by a 4-0 margin against the Warriors in 2018, and to excel in special teams just like they did in last year’s meeting. He also emphasized how important the game’s first six minutes can be before both teams have settled in under the big lights and are no longer thinking about the stage they’re on.

DuBose talked openly about trying to not make the moment too big, which he’s learned after several trips to title games as an assistant and later as a head coach. He said he strives for the players to enjoy every moment of this week — from the practices to arriving for the walk into Jordan-Hare to the moments before opening kickoff — and he has told his coaches to try and keep the yelling to a minimum.

DuBose spoke highly of Central’s senior class, which in the last three years has been part of a team that has gone 37-2 with the two losses coming by a combined four points. DuBose learned long ago that the outcome of a game of this magnitude isn’t life or death, but he’s still determined as ever to send his upperclassmen out as champions.

“Winning is icing on the cake. It's not going to say anything different about who these guys are or what they've accomplished,” DuBose said. “It would be really sweet for the community, for the school system, for these seniors and these guys in this program. It would be nice to say, 'Hey, we're the first team ever at Central to win back-to-back.' On the selfish side, I'd love to get it for them, to say, 'Hey, man, what a career.' If it doesn't happen, what a career still.

“It's been a remarkable run, and I'm very pleased to be a part of it.”

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