By Kim West
Top-ranked Tanner continued its quest to return to the Super Six, advancing to its third straight semifinal appearance with a 26-14 victory Friday night at unranked Montgomery Academy.
Tanner (11-1), the defending Class 2A champion, built a 12-0 halftime lead after a scoreless first quarter and used its ball-hawking defense to stamp out a second-half surge by the Eagles (11-2) at a raucous McLemore Field.
“I can’t say I’m surprised we’re going to the semifinals again, but we’re still playing a lot of young guys,” said Tanner coach Laron White. “I’m really tickled to death with the way our young guys are growing up, and a fast start always helps our kids out.”
Answering adversity again
Montgomery Academy (11-2) scored on two gadget plays within the first 4 minutes of the third quarter and clung to a 14-12 advantage until early in the final period.
The Eagles lit up the scoreboard for the first time on a 5-yard run by star tailback Justin Woolfolk, followed by Sam LaPlatney’s 32-yard grab.
But dual-threat quarterback Josh Thomas was held to 50 yards rushing after accounting for five TDs the previous game.
Tanner, which has battled back from deficits in all three playoff wins, responded with two touchdowns in the fourth and held the Eagles scoreless during the final 20 minutes of the game.
“They came out and gave us their best shot in the second half, but we kept our composure,” White said.
On the Rattlers’ go-ahead drive, Blake Whitt hauled in an 85-yard pass from JonJon Fletcher to get the ball to the Eagles’ 5-yard line. Hayden Stephens plunged in from the 1 and converted a two-point scoring run, regaining the lead for Tanner at 20-14 with 10:26 remaining.
Ty Mayberry added the Rattlers’ fourth and final touchdown with 3:08 left, when the big back darted into the end zone from 11 yards out.
The Rattlers’ defense forced five turnovers and put the brakes on the high-octane Eagles offense, which produced 54 points during its second-round win against No. 10 Ranburne.
“Our defense won us the game last week, and again tonight they did a good job of containing their two high-powered guys in the backfield, the running back and the quarterback,” White said. “That’s an explosive offense that put up a lot of points last week.”
Starting defensive backs Whitt and Deshun Freeman picked off passes in the second quarter, while Fletcher and Baltazar “Tito” Rubio each had a fumble recovery.
Chris Townsend, a starting wide receiver and backup DB, had a fourth-quarter interception for the second straight game.
“Chris started the first two games of the season in our secondary, and then we made a change and put Hayden in,” White said. “Chris has been playing well on offense, and the way he has played this season shows a lot about his character in being patient and not moping around. His play the last two weeks have been big for us.”
By the numbers
Stephens ran 31 times for 125 yards and a pair of 1-yard touchdowns, including one with 3:38 left before halftime and the go-ahead score in the fourth. Through three playoff games, the senior speedster has rushed 80 times for 464 yards and eight TDs.
Mayberry had 11 carries for 84 yards and two scores on a 20-yard rumble in the first quarter and an 11-yarder in the fourth.
Fletcher completed 3 of 9 passes for 106 yards, with an interception in the second quarter, and added 73 rushing yards on scrambles and designed runs.
Tanner’s offense, which lost a fumble in the third, moved the chains for 15 first downs and 387 yards of total offense, including 281 on the ground. The Rattlers missed their only extra-point kick and finished 1 of 3 on two-point attempts.
Montgomery Academy had 11 first downs and 278 yards, with only 83 rushing. Stephen Rutledge went 2 for 2 on PATs.
Fyffe is next
The Rattlers will play Friday at No. 4 Fyffe for the opportunity to play at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Dec. 6 for another Blue Map trophy.
The Red Devils (12-1), whose Long-Ridgeway Stadium is a 93-mile trip east from Tanner, took down second-ranked and previously unbeaten Lanett, 31-6, to move into the semis.
White, who has a 22-9 playoff record and 116 wins overall in 11 seasons, characterized Fyffe’s style of play as “gritty.”
“Fyffe throws the ball quite a lot, and they have a good offense,” he said. “It’s kind of a deceptive offense — they’ll run a speed sweep and try to lull you to sleep and then throw a pass over your head.”
Tanner advanced through the first two rounds by fending off Woodland, 41-29, and staging a fourth-quarter comeback against North Sand Mountain, 27-17.
Fyffe walloped Isabella, 56-30, and got past Walter Welborn, 35-21, in its first two postseason contests.
In other 2A quarterfinal games, No. 3 Washington County (12-1) beat unranked Mobile Christian, 56-42, and No. 9 Sweet Water (10-3) upended sixth-ranked Luverne, 34-24.
— Brandon Crumbley contributed to this report.