For the fourth time since launching the Hillgrove program in 2006, Phil Ironside has his team on the field the week of Thanksgiving.

Practicing on the week of Thanksgiving is looked at as an honor for football coaches.

For high school teams, it means they have advanced to the state quarterfinals. For Kennesaw State, it means its postseason has only just begun.

Hillgrove advanced to the Class AAAAAAA state quarterfinals with its 23-20 victory over Walton and will host Milton on Friday.

It marks the Hawks’ fourth quarterfinal appearance since the program started in 2006, but the first such trip since.

“It’s kind of a badge of honor to make it to Thanksgiving,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said. “That Week 2 (of the playoffs) seems to really separate the numbers.”

Ironside said his team has eaten together for Thanksgiving in years past, but they will not be spending the holiday on the field this year. Players and coaching staff will get to spend that time with their families.

Ironside said Thanksgiving break makes practicing a little easier and creates a more relaxed atmosphere with school not in session, but it does not take away the pride of the position they are in.

“We’re just very appreciative of being here,” Ironside said. “I’m proud of the kids and their hard work, and the coaches for their hard work to get us here.”

For North Cobb Christian, practicing the week of Thanksgiving is a new accomplishment following its successful regular season.

Following a first-round bye, the Eagles escaped Brookstone 20-17 in the second round of the Class A private-school state tournament and now prepare for a trip to Prince Avenue Christian on Friday.

“I think it’s an honor. I really do,” North Cobb Christian coach Mark Hollars said. “You work so hard for this and there’s only two teams left in Cobb County doing it, so that should tell you how hard it is.”

Hollars said Thursday practices are usually unique, but today will look a little different.

After every Thursday practice, the team gathers for what they call “the meeting.” It serves as a time for players to focus on what’s ahead, through guest speakers, conversation or prayer.

Following a morning practice today, the football team was set to invite others within the community to join their team bonding practice.

“It’s a chance for our kids to reflect on who we’re playing and how thankful we are for this blessing,” Hollars said. “We can’t just say it. We have to put Christ first.”

Hollars said he wants to ensure that his team enjoys practice on Thanksgiving, while ensuring that that they still get the most out of it.

“The kids know that practice has a lot to do with how you play on Friday,” Hollars said. “They understand.”

Like the high school coaches, Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said there is nothing better than getting together with your team, practicing, and then going off to be with family and friends to celebrate the holiday.

Kennesaw State is heading into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the second time in its four-year history. The Owls’ 60-52 quintuple-overtime victory against Jacksonville State helped them earn the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye.

Kennesaw State will host the winner of a first-round game between Wofford and Elon on Dec. 1, but the team will continue to practice until then.

“It’s an honor to play on Thanksgiving,” Kennesaw State receiver Justin Sumpter said. “More than half the teams in the nation don’t get to practice on Thanksgiving.”

Bohannon practiced on Thanksgiving as a player, first for his father, Lloyd Bohannon, at Griffin High School, and then under Ray Goff at Georgia. He has also coached on the holiday as an assistant to Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Bohannon knows that, in most cases, if a team is practicing on the holiday, it means it has had a successful season.

“It’s huge,” he said, “and we’re going to do it (today).”

MDJ sports editor John Bednarowski contributed to this report.


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