High School Sports

Thomas Sumter's winning plan was born in September

COLUMBIA-- Michael Fitzgerald stopped talking to reporters and looked to the sideline, joining his teammates and their fans in singing Thomas Sumter Academy's alma mater.

The scene was joyful, one the senior Fitzgerald was told he would want to witness before completing his final high school season. But prior to Saturday's SCISAA Class 2-A state championship game -- a rematch of a regular-season loss to Hilton Head Christian Academy -- few would have given the Generals a chance.

That's because the Eagles won the teams' September meeting in dominating fashion, rolling a flat Thomas Sumter team that surrendered chunks of yards through the air.

The Generals knew they had not played well, Fitzgerald said. And Saturday's 31-27 victory was a product of a serious week of practice and some key adjustments -- most notably, the Generals' attitudes.

"The will to win, that was the biggest thing," Fitzgerald said. "You can make all the adjustments in the world, but you got to have heart."

Fitzgerald did not play for a state championship two years ago, when Thomas Sumter Academy reached the pinnacle but lost.

But members of that team told him it hurt to reach the final stage only to lose.

After the way the first meeting went, change was in order.

Thomas Sumter coach Troy Kessinger thought Eagles quarterback Luke Sirgo enjoyed too much time in the pocket the first game. On Saturday, the Generals blitzed Sirgo often. And the Hilton Head Christian standout was rocked several times.

Another problem the Generals addressed: During the first game, when the Eagles sent someone in motion, a Thomas Sumter defensive back would follow. Sirgo routinely found mismatches to one side. This time, someone stayed home.

Kessinger made another move on the fly. Hilton Head Christian's defense sported eight-man fronts much of the night, forcing quarterback Patrick Stegall to throw. Kessinger went with it, and his senior quarterback enjoyed a solid night.

Someone asked Kessinger after the game why he had not called for more runs early. Because the Eagles weren't allowing it, Kessinger said. And once the Eagles softened to the run, Thomas Sumter hit them with little-used backs Ryan Mitchum and Fitzgerald, who combined for 12 carries for 105 yards.

The Generals' second options have aided them all season, Kessinger said. When offensive lineman Austin Baker, whom his coach called the best player on the team, went down with an injury during the first half, the Generals did not fall off with his replacement.

"That's one of our secrets," Kessinger said. "Our twos are better than anybody's. They get to rest our ones. We've won a couple of games earlier in the season with our best guys on the sideline and us driving down the field and scoring."

That was the scene Saturday, after Fitzgerald had broken a 46-yard run for the winning score. He and his teammates had avenged an embarrassing 29-point home loss and brought the school its first state championship. All thanks to the right adjustments.

"We had a job to do and had to get it done," Fitzgerald said. "In our hearts, we knew we had the game."