MADISON – Ridge Futral hoped to make a good first impression when he arrived at MRA five years ago.
A wiry, 8th-grader at the time, Futral played in a couple of 8th-grade games and played sparingly on special teams on the junior high team. That was it.
"I didn't really impress any of the coaches very much to say the least," Futral said, with a chuckle. "I was just a small guy . . . I'm pretty sure they weren't expecting me to ever amount to very much."
Fast forward all these years later, and that smallish, overlooked junior high kid has evolved into one of MRA's most invaluable players. Futral, along with 12 other seniors, went out in style Friday night in their final game at Patriot Field, helping the Patriots waltz to a 35-7 semifinal playoff victory over Parklane Academy.
The victory, which came on a windy, chilly early November evening, earned MRA a trip to next Friday's 6 p.m. Class AAAA-Division I Championship Game at Mississippi College's Robinson-Hale Stadium. The Patriots, 12-0, will face rival Jackson Prep, a 42-21 winner over Jackson Academy in Friday night's other semifinal.
Futral, as he has all year, played an instrumental role in yet another win, rushing for a pair of first half touchdowns to stake MRA to a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter. When he wasn't scoring touchdowns, he was tracking down Parklane running backs from his linebacker position. That's right, the same kid who could barely find a spot on special teams, now plays both ways on the undefeated, championship game bound varsity team.
Not only does No. 13 play on both sides of the ball, he excels. He came into Friday night's game with a team-high 70 tackles - 25 more than the next closest guy. Nineteen of those tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. He's also had one sack, six quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. He added another fumble recovery in the second quarter against Parklane, leading to MRA's fourth touchdown.
If there ever was a poster child for player development and player improvement it is Futral, who has made himself into one of the top players in the MAIS. In some ways, he's still been a bit overshadowed this season by his defensive mates John Cartwright and Samuel Shufelt among others. Nevertheless, he's made a name for himself, so much so that Samford has invited him to play football as a preferred walk-on.
MRA head coach Herbert Davis was asked by a reporter after the game if he thought Futral would develop into the All-Star caliber player he is today. His response was blunt: "No."
"He has such a tremendous work ethic, and he plays hard," Davis said. "It just goes to show you the commitment, and the determination he's had to get to where he is today. He's a system guy. He's been in the system now for three years, and he's been a starter for three years. He understands everything, and that has allowed him to play faster. That, and moving him closer to the box, has also allowed him to utilize his speed better. He's been one of our biggest difference makers."
Futral wasn't the only senior to score on Friday night. Landes Purnell hauled in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Philip Short sandwiched between Futral's two scoring runs, and Cody Swanson scampered 58 yards for a touchdown after reeling in a screen pass from Short. Swanson's touchdown made it 35-0 with :31 seconds remaining before halftime, meaning the clock ran continuously in the second half.
MRA also welcomed the return of senior running back William Milam, who has been sidelined the past five weeks with an injured back. Milam didn't score, but he did rush for a team-high 79 yards on seven carries – all in the first half. He also caught three passes for 26 yards. Milam had 11 touchdowns – six rushing, five receiving - in the Patriots' first six games before getting hurt in the second half of the St. Stanislaus game
Milam had runs of 14, 23 and 25 yards, adding another big play threat back into the mix on offense. His return could not have come at a better time for MRA, which will look to defeat six-time reigning Jackson Prep for the second time this year. MRA won the first meeting 42-21 a month ago on this very field, snapping a 14-game losing streak to the Preppies.
Prep has ended MRA's season each of the past four years. Prep beat MRA three straight years in the championship game before eliminating the Patriots in the semifinals a year ago.
"It felt good being back out there tonight," Milam said. "I've been looking forward to coming back ever since I got hurt. I was a little rusty reading blocks and all, but my back felt good."
Futral and Milam were among the many seniors who stayed on the field for an extended period after the game, taking pictures, hanging out with friends and family, and basically just soaking in the moment.
"It's been a special year," Milam said. "This senior group has really been the main reason. We've had really good leadership, and we play for each other. The chemistry we have is tough to beat. We're all looking forward to next week, and looking forward to the challenge of trying to beat Prep again. We'll be ready."
Added Futral: "Tonight was bittersweet. It almost hasn't hit me yet. This was our last game at home, and we've only got one more game left to play. I've enjoyed growing with these guys and loving this team. It's amazing to see what we've done."
The same can be said for Futral, who scored on his only two runs of the night. One of his scoring runs went for six yards, the other 34 yards. He now has 10 rushing touchdowns on 39 carries this season. While he has been an important cog in MRA's high-scoring offense, he has played an even bigger role on the Patriots' stingy defense. It often looks like he's been shot out of a cannon when he shoots an open gap and tackles an opposing running back for a loss.
A hold back, Futral was forced to sit out his freshman year. He earned a starting spot as safety as a sophomore yet wasn't satisfied. He started working out more in the weight room, and in the process put on an additional 30 pounds between his sophomore and junior season. Futral went from 155 pounds to 185 pounds and, if anything, got faster.
"The coaches moved me linebacker that year . . . I think that's one of the best things that happened to me," Futral said. "It's been a great ride. I was a little unsure at first, but at the same time I always had confidence in myself. It's been cool to go from underdog to one of the leaders on the team. Hopefully I can serve as an inspiration to some of the younger kids who don't get to play much on the junior high team."
Junior Joe Perkins, who like Futral plays both ways, also enjoyed a good night. He had four catches for 45 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown reception. He also had an interception – his fourth of the season – late in the second quarter, helping set up Swanson's long scoring catch. Short finished 12 of 13 for 184 yards and three touchdowns – all in the first half – as most of the starters took the rest of the night off after halftime.
"It was Senior Night, it was their last time playing on this field, so we wanted to make it a special night for them and a special night for this program," Perkins said. "Now, we want to finish what we started. We've got one game left. We're going to try to treat it just like last time, and worry about us, not them. We're going to stick to our game plan, trust our coaches, trust the techniques we've been taught, and play our hearts out or four quarters."
MRA actually finished with its lowest scoring output of the season. The Patriots' previous low of 38 points came in a season-opening win at Magnolia Heights. Since then, Short and Co. had scored 40 or more points for 10 consecutive weeks. Not that anybody cared on this night, especially since MRA had the game well in hand at halftime with 35 points already in the bag and the defense once again playing lights out.
Parklane finished 6-6. The Pioneers lost four of their last five, with the lone win during that stretch coming a week ago in a quarterfinal playoff victory at Oak Forest. Parklane managed zero points and only 80 net yards of offense on seven possessions against MRA's first-string defense. The Pioneers also turned the ball over twice, leading to a pair of Patriots' touchdowns.
Danny White's defense has now come away with 28 turnovers – 14 fumble recoveries, 14 interceptions – this season, leading to 133 points. It has also scored three touchdowns. Parklane drove inside MRA's 20-yard line on its first possession only to have a 36-yard field goal attempt blocked by Hayes Puckett.
"It took us a while to get back in the groove after being off last week (first round bye)," Swanson said. "And it was cold . . . it took us a little bit to get warm. But we did what we needed to do."
The question remains – can MRA do what it needs to do one more time? The Patriots are just one win away from the third state championship in program history. A familiar foe stands in the way.
"I'm sure (Prep) will make some adjustments," Davis said. "But, at the same time, they've done a great job for years. They're going to do what they do. It's going to come down to which team executes the best, and which team makes the most plays. That's the team that's going to win. I hope it's us. I told everybody from the get-go I had a special group this year, before we ever played a down. It's been a fun group to coach. We've got a great group of leaders, who have pushed us in the right direction and helped us stay focused. We've got to do that one more week."