Nestled deep in North Florida, the Union County Tigers were preparing for one of the most highly anticipated games of their season against the Madison County Cowboys.
The matchup between the Tigers and the Cowboys has turned into a long-expected game, with Madison County blowing the Tigers out 49-0 in 2019. The following year, the Cowboys once again beat them in the playoffs, this time a much closer game 18-7.
This year on Friday, Nov. 18, Coach Andrew Thomas, 45, said that his players were ready for their first playoff game of the season and were not intimidated in the slightest.
“I don’t see it as ‘We have to play Madison County’, I see it as ‘We get to play Madison County’,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be a tough test for our kids, but they are resilient and ready.”
Coach Thomas was not wrong. On the eve of their biggest game of the year, fans and families gathered to support the Tigers. Union County ended up winning 27-16 and are moving on to the Florida High School Athletic Association Regional Finals against the Lafayette Hornets on Friday, Nov. 25.
In the playoff game against Madison County, the Tigers did not win easily. By halftime, the score was 10-7 in favor of the Cowboys. Coming out of the half, Union County scored twice in the third quarter, and sealed the deal with another touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Madison County managed to put a touchdown up in the third quarter as well, but missed the extra point and would not score for the rest of the night.
Only arriving to Union County as a coach three years ago, Thomas has already made a big impact on the team. He grew up in Cross City, about an hour southwest of Union County, so he was already familiar with the program.
“Returning to a school that is close to where I grew up was definitely a comfort zone kind of thing for me, they’ve always been a big-time program at a smaller school, at least in my lifetime, so this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ passion for coaching goes just as far as the student’s passion for playing. These student-athletes have proved their passion for the sport by showing up and showing out. AJ Cortese, senior quarterback for the Union County Tigers, feels that it is his responsibility to lead this team, as a captain and as the heart of the offense.
“Everybody feeds off of me, I’m the quarterback, the captain, so if I’m down they’re going to be down, when I’m up they’re going to be up,” he said. “It’s important for me to keep my head in the game not just for my sake but for everyone else on that field.”
Before Coach Thomas arrived at Union County, the team was dealing with two different coaching staffs as a result of long-time coach Robby Pruitt leaving after nine successful years. As a result, the high school athletes went through multiple big changes in the middle of their season, never gaining stability.
One of the senior defensive lineman Markus Strong, 17, said the transition in coaching staff was seamless, and appreciates the hard work that Coach Thomas has put in.
“I think he’s done a great job, at first we were a little skeptical, but he’s turned into a great mentor for all of us, not just a coach,” he said.
Strong’s teammates agree, saying that Thomas’ methods of coaching works better than ever before.
“There’s definitely a big difference between the coaching staff my freshman year and the coaching staff that started with Coach Thomas,” Cortese said. “They are a lot more physical and hands-on in practice which is important when you’re trying to get better.”
Linebacker Dalton Lane agrees and has supported Coach Thomas since the beginning.
“I think we knew from the first practice that he was a good leader and a really great coach,” he said.
Even though a new coach normally means improvements among the team, a new coach can’t save his players from injuries. At the beginning of his junior year, Strong suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his ACL. He spent the season on the sidelines, cheering his teammates on.
“It was hard watching the team play without me, but I loved watching them pull through, they didn’t let my injury affect them,” he said.
Thankfully, Strong fully recovered in time for his senior season, something he wasn’t sure was possible.
“The first game back felt surreal, I was coming back better than I ever felt before and when I stepped on the field it just felt right,” Strong said.
Serious injuries such as a torn ACL can be debilitating and knock a person’s confidence in their abilities. While months and months of physical therapy and rehab is the main part of recovery, staying in the right headspace is just as important.
“My injury taught me that the game is mostly mental, rehab taught me that if I put my mind to it, I can do anything,” he said.
Despite his injury, Strong has received 20 collegiate offers from a multitude of schools including Tulane, UCF, USF, Georgia Tech and many more schools around the country.
“Before the season, I was worried that coming off of an injury that no one would like me or be interested in me,” Strong said. “I told myself that I was just going to play and be me and have fun and sure enough, the offers started rolling in.”
When asked about how they prepared for their first playoff game of the 2022 season, the players said they were “locked in” and ready to go.
“We know they are going to give us their best, so we just got to prepare for it,” Lane said.
At the end of the day, this team is more than just wins and losses. It’s a brotherhood.
“I know I’m going to carry these friendships past high school, I’m so thankful for the friends, the brothers, that this team has given me,” Lane said.