Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Athens defenders Jon Wallace, left, and Todd Pepper prepare to stop Eufaula quarterback Jerrel Jernigan during first-half action of the Class 5A state finals at Legion Field in Birmingham on Friday. The Eagles' stingy defense limited a high-scoring Eufaula team to seven points.
Athens Class 5A champions
By Brooke Milam
BIRMINGHAM — In the end, it didn't matter what the predictions were, and it didn't matter what the statistics sheets said.
The underdog Athens High Golden Eagles won a Class 5A state championship Friday night with a 10-7 win over previously unbeaten Eufaula at Birmingham's Legion Field.
"We thought it'd be back and forth, but we kind of came in with some chips on our shoulders," Athens senior quarterback Rob Ezell said. "People kept talking like we couldn't do it. We won it for us. We won it for our city and also to bring some respect back to North Alabama."
Eufaula (14-1) brought a running game that many in the state deemed "unstoppable." Athens took a 10-7 lead at halftime and didn't allow another point. But as tight a grip as the Athens defense held on Eufaula's normally score-happy Tigers, Eufaula still got its yards.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Athens players storm the field seconds after winning the Class 5A state championship over Eufaula 10-7 in Birmingham on Friday.
Afterward, Eufaula coach Dan Klages just stared at the statistic sheet, amazed that 299 yards rushing and 100 passing were not enough. The Tigers had averaged 31 points a game in the playoffs.
"At halftime, we didn't draw up any fancy plays or anything," Klages said. "What we were doing was working. The bottom line is we just didn't have the big plays we normally have and that's a credit to Athens and their defense."
Meanwhile, Athens (12-3) rolled up 228 yards of total offense. Ezell earned the championship game's most valuable player award after completing 15 of 22 passes for 181 yards and rushing for what ended up being a team-high 36 yards.
"Nobody expected it to be this way, but speed wasn't really the main factor," Athens coach Allen Creasy said. "Defensively, for us it was about being in the right place."
Without overwhelming stats, the key to Athens' victory was timing — the Golden Eagles struck early.
After Antonio Long intercepted a Jerrel Jernigan pass that gave the Golden Eagles the ball on their 26-yard line, Athens drove 74 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown. Karlos Jones capped the drive with a 3-yard run for a 7-0 advantage.
"We knew we had to get a touchdown to get them back on their heels. ... The points early were huge," Ezell said.
Eufaula missed a chance to answer with a 34-yard field goal attempt, and the Tigers couldn't score on the next drive after a fumble that Athens' Robert Brown recovered in the opening minute of the second half.
Eufaula tied the game at 7-7 with a 4-yard run by Xavier Crews 1:17 before halftime, but otherwise, the Golden Eagles' defense held.
Athens led at halftime after Matt Jackson hit a 23-yard field goal two seconds before the break. Klages' team hadn't seen a halftime total that low all year, other than a 0-0 tie with Valley that Eufaula eventually won for the 5A, Region 2 championship.
The halftime score — and Athens' slim lead — stood.
And even though Eufaula had the ball for the final nine minutes of the game, the Golden Eagles defense was just stingy enough to deny the touchdown. Eufaula went for a 44-yard field goal with six seconds left in the game.
It missed, short and right.
Klages said Georgio McCullough had made a 48-yarder this season, and that helped him decide to go for the overtime.
"I thought for a minute about doing our little fake, but I felt like percentage-wise (kicking it) was the best thing to do," Klages said. "And I'd probably do the same thing again."
And Athens celebrated.
"Ever since seventh grade, we've had the dream," Jones said. "This was our dream."
Class 3A: Pike Co. 44, Clay Co. 14: Tobias Lee and Pike County made the Clay County Panthers pay dearly for their mistakes, and there were a lot of them.
Lee threw for 212 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Kevin Marshall, as the Bulldogs defended their Class 3A state championship.
Pike County (14-1) scored five times off turnovers by Clay County, which fumbled or threw away the ball away nine times in all.
"You can't turn the ball over and expect to win," said Clay County coach Danny Horn. "The best team won, no doubt."
Clay County (14-1) scored first, but it was mostly Panther mistakes — and Pike County points — after that.
Lee threw a 70-yard TD pass to Marshall to set a 3A record for longest pass in a championship game, and Marshall
also caught a 40-yard pass for a score.
Marshall caught six passes for 158 yards to win MVP honors.
A Clay County fumble gave Pike County the ball with the score tied at 7, and James Jackson got behind the defense
and caught a deflected ball for a 46-yard touchdown pass from Lee.
James Jackson scored on a 21-yard run that followed another Clay County fumble, and Darrel Reynolds kicked a 26-yard field goal after a Panther interception.
Just when it seemed like it couldn't get any worse for Clay County, it did.
Reynolds scored a touchdown on a 5-yard run after the Panthers' sixth fumble with 3:33 remaining. Then, on Clay County's next possession, James Jackson picked off Chase Horn's pass and ran 46 yards for a TD.
It was only fitting that Clay County also scored off a turnover: Quamain Simmons caught a 51-yard pass from Horn over the middle after a Pike County interception.
Horn also had a 17-yard touchdown pass to Simmons.
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