Smith, defense lead Tompkins to first playoff victory
The Tompkins football team could not find consistency on offense in the first half, but the defense gave the Falcons the lead going into halftime.
That bought enough time for R.J. Smith to hit his stride Nov. 16 at Rhodes Stadium. The junior scored on three consecutive carries in the third quarter, leading Tompkins to a 35-20 victory against Elkins in the first playoff game in program history.
The Falcons (9-2) will play Cypress Falls or Westside seeking their first area championship.
This time last year Tompkins had just concluded a winless season. Now every snap they take makes history.
“It feels great,” senior safety Zachary Cipolla said. “Going from 0-9 last year to this year, it’s a big difference and it’s a great feeling.”
Smith finished the night with 212 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. His stellar stretch gave Tompkins the second-half advantage it needed to hold off Kolby White and Elkins (7-4).
Smith opened the second half scoring to put Tompkins ahead 14-6, then answered a touchdown by White with a 55-yard run after Sidney Holmes III picked off Elkins’ two-point attempt.
Smith was not finished, sprinting left on his next carry for a 32-yard touchdown and a 28-12 lead with 1:59 left in the third quarter.
“I kind of challenged R.J. a little bit about running downhill a little more,” Tompkins coach Todd McVey said. “He took it in stride. He’s one of our captains. He put our team on his shoulders a little bit and did some good stuff we know he can do. That was kind of a spark for us.”
Smith said the Falcons knew they could play to their offensive strengths, even against a good defense, crediting a collective effort.
“It’s really the o-line and the wide receivers blocking, and (quarterback) Jalen (Milroe) doing his job,” Smith said. “It’s a whole team thing. Us doing our job just makes me score. I just thank them.”
Defense controlled the first half, forcing seven three and outs. Daelon Mitchell gave Tompkins trouble in the middle of the defensive line, with Xavier McIntyre and Camden Henderson adding stops.
McIntyre recovered a fumble for the only turnover of the half, but the Knights could not capitalize due to short-yardage stops by Cipolla and Kobee Madriz.
The Falcons found their timing on their third drive, with Smith carrying much of a 66-yard touchdown march, including the two-yard run to finish it. Milroe’s 22-yard keeper helped set up the 7-0 lead with 2:55 left in the first quarter.
Elkins answered with its best drive of the half, starting at the 25 and using a skillful 36-yard catch and run by White to set up a 26-yard field goal by Ethan Henry. Christopher Barlow’s sack helped stop the drive.
The Knights cut the lead to 7-6 with 5:52 remaining in the half, using decent starting position. A first-down catch by Issiah Nixon helped set up Henry’s 28-yard field goal, though a penalty erased a touchdown.
After a Tompkins three and out, Branden Jackson altered Elkins’ next possession with a 12-yard sack, following with a stop to force a punt. Neither team could budge before halftime.
Tompkins’ red-zone defense was effective all night, including a key stop by Kaian Dislate late in the game on fourth and goal at the two that preserved the final margin.
“Very proud, because No. 2 (Cameron George) is a stud,” McVey said. “That kid’s a player. No. 13 (White) is a player. We knew that. They’re a good football team, a lot of speed. We told guys they had to get there and if the first guy misses the other guy’s got to make up.”
Elkins was stopped in part by penalties, totaling 120 yards. Knights quarterback George was efficient, completing 19 of 23 passes for 169 yards without an interception and adding 71 yards on 19 carries.
White led all receivers with 106 receptions, including a 15-yard touchdown catch. He brought Elkins back in the game with an electrifying, 76-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. Jacory Lee’s two-point run closed the gap to 28-20.
But Ryan Schmidt regained the two-score advantage for Tompkins with 6:30 remaining, taking in a third-down swing pass for a 15-yard touchdown. The Falcons eventually closed out victory with first downs, one a bobbling, third-down catch by Victor Charles.
The taste of playoff victory has Tompkins eager for another. If the Falcons get past area, a regional semifinal against former district opponent Strake Jesuit could await.
“We’re just going to win and do it again, over and over again,” Dislate said. “Whoever is the opponent, we’re just going to keep winning.”
The Falcons also hope it is the beginning of a trend for the program. They won a total of five games in their first four varsity seasons.
“It’s a really good feeling knowing it’s the first one in school history and just knowing we can be the team that starts more teams winning playoff games,” Smith said.