Note: This column appears in the Sunday, Dec. 2 newspaper on Page B1.
CANTON — There was no happy ending for the Tomcats.
Trimble’s 2018 season came to an end on Saturday as McComb finally provided a test the Tomcats simply couldn’t will themselves through.
The Panthers loaded the box with a five-man front, complete with serious beef over the interior slots, and stymied the Tomcats 28-3 on a dreary, cold, wet afternoon inside Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
It was a sad finish to another — and otherwise — celebratory season for Trimble (13-2).
Tears streamed unabated, despite the players’ best efforts to hold them in, and mixed with sweat, blood and face paint to cover the Tomcats in sometimes grisly masks of heartbreak.
Four months of games. Five months of practice. Weeks of sacrifice. A country mile worth of medical tape to hold players and equipment together. Enough bracers and wraps and padding to fill a 747 used to help a 16-year old stay on the field one more series, one more play.
And now it was over, without the payoff of a state championship.
“I just think back to all the hours that we put in, so much time behind the scenes that nobody sees, and we expect the hard work to pay off,” said Trimble senior receiver and defensive back Noah Rossiter.
“It hurts really bad that we put in all this, and we didn’t come out on top.”
Trimble didn’t win in the Division VII state championship game through no fault of its own. McComb was a bear defensively; the Panthers were burly enough to stop the gaps inside and fast enough to run down Trimble senior Max Hooper, and juniors Cameron Kittle and Conner Wright on the edges.
Kittle completed just 6 of 21 passes and was intercepted three times. He rushed for a team high 49 yards as the Panthers continually unloaded on him after every carry, and nearly every throw.
Trimble’s defense, stingy to the point abuse so much of the season, wasn’t porous, but it needed to be perfect and couldn’t be. McComb finished with a modest 238 total yards, but a couple of short field led to a pair of second-half touchdowns that put the game out of reach.
The Panthers are a worthy state champion, and celebrated their first title since 1983 with a Gatorade bath for head coach Kris Alge.
And the Tomcats were a worthy adversary. This time, however, the Tomcats came out on the wrong side of the equation. Trimble head coach Phil Faires, like he did in 2013, said Trimble had no complaints.
They played hard. They represented their families and community with spirt, grit and class. That doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
“It’s just sad to see it end this way,” Faires said. “There’s a lot of other teams in the state that would have liked to be in this position. I’ve witnessed how hard these guys have worked.
“They’re real deserving of being in this position.”
In truth, a lot of people in the Trimble camp thought the Tomcats might be a year away from being in this very spot. The Tomcats are set to return the majority of their starters on both sides of the ball including critical standouts like Kittle, Wright and linebacker/fullback Sawyer Koons.
But this was the last chance for the senior class, eight players, to do something that’s never been done before.
And they went out swinging.
Hooper did everything, as usual, from punting to kicking to running and tackling and trying to haul in passes. He became the first player in Trimble history to score in a state championship game with a 25-yard field goal in the first quarter.
“All the way leading up here, unlike the other seasons, it felt like all of us got closer than we ever thought was possible,” Hooper said.
Sam Ives, pressed into duty at fullback because of the injury to Koons, hammered away as hard has he could. He played inside defense and racked up 13 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Playing in a venue he never dreamed of before, Ives played perhaps the best game of his career.
“We came here yesterday and watched a game and I was thinking like ‘I don’t know how they’re out there playing.’ I stepped out onto the field, it was crazy,” Ives said. “I just feel blessed for being here.”
Linemen Alex Coffman and Trey Young did their best to battle the Panthers up front. Rossiter hauled in the Tomcats’ biggest play, with a leaping grab for a 34-yard completion. Gary Brooks, out for most of the year with a broken collarbone, never missed a game or a chance to walk out with his teammates.
Each and every one of them, however, gave into the emotion of the final minutes. It was over. And it was a blessing.
“It was awesome,” Hooper said. “For it to end in that fashion sucks, but it was a great run.”
And while the seniors each said they were blessed to be here, Faires wanted to make sure everyone knew it was the Tomcats were blessed to have that group of seniors leading the way.
Trimble’s toughness in 2018 came from them.
“We’re not the richest community,” Faires said. “But just to see wherever you went for the last week or two, everyone’s in a good mood. Everyone’s happy, and that’s a credit to these guys.
“It’s fun to see them reap those benefits.”
It was a sad afternoon in Canton. But with the Tomcats, the good times are always just a season away.
Jason Arkley is a sports writer for The Athens Messenger. Send him an email at email@example.com.