BY CHIP CIRILLO | PHOTO BY ANDY COLLIGNON
After Montgomery Bell Academy beat Brentwood Academy in overtime five weeks ago, there was a feeling the rivals would meet again in the playoffs.
The Eagles beat the Big Red in the past three state finals, but they will meet one round earlier this time in a Division II-AAA semifinal at MBA on Friday night.
“This is four years in a row we’ve played them twice, so I think that’s an expectation that you’re going to see them somewhere down the road,” BA coach Cody White said. “I think it was inevitable at some point we were going to play them.”
BA (9-2) won five of the previous seven games against MBA, but the Big Red’s 25-24 win on Oct. 19 gave them the East/Middle Region title and avenged three painful losses in the state championship.
“I think the last time we faced them was the most electric atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of,” said MBA offensive left tackle Jackson Lampley (6-4, 300), a Tennessee commit. “I’m really looking forward to [the rematch].”
There have been plenty electric moments between these rivals, including BA’s 56-55 double-overtime victory in the 2015 state championship.
William Tyrone’s shovel pass to tight end Joshua Meriwether on a gutsy two-point conversion play gave MBA (10-1) the win in October.
After the heartbreaking loss, running back Tomario Pleasant said the fourth-ranked Eagles would come back with a chip on their shoulder and use the setback as fuel.
Pleasant (5-10, 180) leads the Eagles in rushing with 1,198 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“Tomario is an ultimate competitor when he has the ball in his hands,” White said. “He’s small, but he’s really tough. A physical runner, great vision.”
Pleasant led BA with 94 rushing yards against No. 3 MBA during the regular season, including a 10-yard TD run that gave the Eagles a 24-17 lead in OT. He announced an offer from Mississippi State over the weekend.
Inside linebacker Devyn Curtis (6-2, 205), who has offers from Vanderbilt and South Carolina, leads the Eagles in tackles (80) and is second in sacks (eight). The junior is smart, passionate and athletic.
“Hopefully, we can play more physical and match their physicality,” Curtis said of the MBA rematch. “They came out and kind of punched us in the mouth early and made some adjustments.”
The Big Red jumped out to a 10-3 halftime lead, unusual considering BA has outscored opponents 133-8 in the first quarter this season. BA also fell behind early in a loss to McCallie that ended the Eagles’ 24-game winning streak on Oct. 30.
Curtis, the defensive MVP in the 2017 state final, and Thomas Gore (10) have combined for 18 sacks.
“Thomas is hard for anybody to handle,” White said. “For us in the 3-4 – anybody that runs the 3-4, the nose [guard] is by far the most important part of that defense because if they can push the nose around everything comes unraveled. And Thomas is arguably the best one we’ve had. Really athletic for as big as he is, super strong and plays fast.”
Since BA and MBA are so evenly matched the game could come down to special teams.
MBA’s Dominic Fisher took advantage of a blown assignment when he blocked Patrick Doyle’s punt and Hedges Hayworth returned it 10 yards for a TD late in the first half against BA in October.
Fisher has blocked two punts this season and both were returned for TDs by a teammate, including Ian Hall’s score against Pope John Paul II. Fisher missed a third block by inches against Baylor in the regular-season finale. MBA has blocked five puts this season.
“I just busted through there and he held it a lot longer than I thought he would,” Fisher said of the blocked punt against BA. “It was pretty crazy and it was one of the highlights of my season so far. We put a very large emphasis on special teams. I think 75 percent of the time if a team blocks a punt they’re going to win the game.”
BA’s Wade Williams has passed for 997 yards and nine TDs with just one interception. He threw two TDs in the second half to give BA a 17-10 lead over MBA, but Tyrone’s 12-yard TD run on a bootleg left tied the game at 17 with 9:17 remaining in regulation.
“We try to play it safe,” Williams said. “That’s always a point coach White makes the day of the game. Usually, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game.”
BA has also been strong in the third quarter, outscoring opponents 104-14.
The Big Red has lost four senior starters to injuries: safety Hugh Sullivan, safety Cooper Maddox, running back Patrick Wilk and running back Brenden Harris.
“Next man up has got to go and there’s nothing else to do,” MBA coach Marty Euverard said.
Euverard is also wary of BA running back Jordan James, who has rushed for 509 yards and seven TDs. James averages 7.6 yards per carry and Pleasant averages 7.5.
“That freshman is for real,” Euverard said of James. “It’s going to be a tough task to hold those guys down.”
But defense is what MBA does best. The Big Red has held seven opponent to single digits, including two shutouts.
Only three points have been scored against MBA in the past two games. The Big Red allowed a season-high 24 against BA in the first game.
Free safety Nick German, linebacker Jackson Hannah (Nebraska commit, 6-3, 228), lineman Ian Hall and defensive lineman Dominic Fisher have really stood out in MBA’s multiple defense. Hannah’s size, speed and explosiveness make him an elite player.
MBA has won seven straight since suffering its only loss against top-ranked Memphis University School (10-0) on Sept. 7.
“We just try to get our kids to play with incredible heart,” Euverard said. “We’re a very small team, so we have to play with this incredible passion, especially when you’re playing a really good team like Brentwood. Solid in everything they do.”