By Jonathan Deal
It’s no secret why Tanner won its first state championship in school history last week. For 14 games, the Rattlers used a suffocating defense and punishing running game to pound opposing teams into submission.
The result was 14 wins by an average margin of 38 points, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In reality, most of Tanners’ wins this season were not even that close. In all but two games, Tanner led by at least two touchdowns entering the fourth quarter.
The only time the game was remotely close was against Madison Academy, the Class 3A state champs, and Friday’s game against Washington County. Had Tanner left its first-string in games more than three quarters in those games, that 38-point margin would have been far greater.
With games being decided by such large margins, Tanner needed only to stay with the basics. Hand the ball to its dynamic running backs and watch them do the rest. Stepping out of the shadow of his brother, Landon, Hayden Stephens ran for nearly 2,000 yards and 31 touchdowns this season. The junior carried the ball 29 times for 142 yards, breaking a Class 2A championship game record for carries.
Rich complemented Stephens with more than 1,300 yards and 19 touchdowns, including two important scores Friday to earn him MVP honors for the 2A championship game.
Rich was an equally important member of Tanner’s dominant defense this season. Rich and fellow senior linebacker Dexter Douglas combined for more than 100 tackles this season.
Rich, Deshaun Freeman and Johnathan Fletcher all picked off passes to set another 2A title game record for passes intercepted. Fletcher’s second interception in the fourth quarter sealed the win for Tanner when the sophomore returned a jump ball near midfield for a score to give the Rattlers a 28-7 lead late in the game.
While the linebackers and defensive backs took most of the glory with the interceptions, the Rattlers defensive line is what set Tanners’ defense apart from others. Kyle Shoulders and Baltazar Rubio terrorized opposing backfields all season, constantly putting foes behind the down and distance marker on first down.
On Friday, that defense proved it has what it takes to make plays when they matter against the best competition. Three times Tanner’s defense was pinned back facing a first and goal from inside the 8-yard line. On those three possessions, Tanner gave up one touchdown, got one interception and a came up with a crucial goal-line stand in the second quarter to maintain a 7-0 lead.
Just ask the coach of the 2A runner-up what he saw on the other side of the ball Friday.
“They do a great job with their defense,” said Washington County coach Chris Wilson. “There were plays that we missed, but you have to give them credit, they did a great job. Their safeties come up and play the run as good as anyone and they won't let you get over the top of them.”
High praise from a team that went 13-1 and averaged nearly five touchdowns per game this season.