Cade Shepherd leaps over a fallen defender.
Cade Shepherd leaps over a fallen defender.
Tri-County Academy will play Riverfield Academy for a state championship Thursday after cruising through the third round of the MAIS playoffs last week.

The game sets up as a classic revenge game for Tri-County, which lost a nail-biter to Riverfield 50-49 in Rayville, La. way back in August.

The Rebels blew multiple double-digit leads in that game before losing on a controversial call at the end of regulation. The officials gave Riverfield one untimed down after TCA coach Phillip Wasson and the Rebels thought the game was over. A score on that final play gave the Raiders the win.

“We were up big twice in that game,” said Wasson, who is in his first season at Tri-County. “That includes a 19-point lead late in the third quarter. 

“I don’t know if we let our foot off the gas or what, but we couldn’t stop them at all after that. But we have gotten better, and we know they have gotten better.”

That’s almost certainly true, but for Riverfield, it’s hard to improve on perfection.

The Raiders (12-0) haven’t lost a game in a calendar year. They beat Columbia Academy 38-26 in the first round of the playoffs and edged Lee Academy 16-14 last week to earn their berth in the state title game.

Wasson and his squad have been watching film on Riverfield all week. He said Wednesday there’s a lot to unpack when assessing that potent Raider offense, but schematically, it’s eerily familiar.

“They are basically the same kind of team we are,” Wasson said. “They want to run the ball, control the line and they like to overload one side of the line and run power with their four big running backs. If they get in a bind, they throw it up to one of their two tight ends that are about 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3.”

Slowing down that kind of offense would be a huge challenge for anyone, but if the Rebels can recreate their performance from last week, they’ll be tough to beat.

The Rebels (10-2) blew past Wayne Academy 34-0 Friday night in Flora thanks to an absolutely stellar performance on defense and a steady rushing attack of their own.

Quarterback Cade Shepherd ran for 126 yards on 18 carries, bringing his season total to 1,332 yards. Dillon Hendrick added 134 more rushing yards on 24 carries and scored four touchdowns.

The Tri-County defense, which played perhaps its best game of the season against Wayne Academy’s option-oriented rushing attack, has now allowed just 13.75 points per game in 2019.

A similar performance Thursday might put the Rebels over the top for their first state championship since 2012.

But no matter what happens against Riverfield, Wasson said he couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to coach in his first year at Tri-County.

“Either way, I’m so proud of our guys and this team,” Wasson said. “We’re playing better than we did at the start of the season, despite our guys having to learn a new system. We went through that period where I was feeling them out and they were feeling me out, but what we’ve got is a hard-working group of kids that has pushed through everything.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Jackson Academy.