By Kim West
ATHENS — Fans of classic, smashmouth football will be in for a treat today as No. 1 Tanner makes a return trip to the AHSAA Class 2A state championship game to face No. 4 Washington County.
The heavily favored Rattlers (13-0) will play the Bulldogs (13-1) at 3 p.m. at Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium in a showdown that Tanner coach Laron White predicted would be physical and fast-paced since both teams thrive on their power-running attacks.
“We’re going to do the same thing we’ve been doing all year,” said White, who has guided the Rattlers to a 104-21 record during his 10-year tenure, including a 27-1 mark in the past two seasons. “Washington County is always running the ball downfield just like our offense, so I think it will be a fast ball game without a lot of passing.
“They have an explosive running back with two good receivers (Jalyn Cooper and Kerrigan Pennington), and they’re not going to have a weak point.”
The Bulldogs feature T.J. Kidd, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior who has rushed for more than 1,500 yards, including a 16-carry, 337-yard performance with touchdown scampers of 78, 54 and 48 yards in their 41-33 semifinal victory over Sweet Water, who defeated Washington County 20-7 Oct. 12.
Washington County also relies on speedster DeAnthony Holcombe, bruiser Demarcus Holcombe and 5-foot-10, 165-pound quarterback Dane Howard (606 yards rushing, 1,081 passing). Their top four rushers have combined for 3,270 rushing yards in 14 games.
“We’ve got to find a way to establish the run because if we can’t run the ball, we can’t win,” said White, an offensive lineman during his prep career at Courtland and the University of Alabama. “What it boils down to are the guys up front. They don’t get any glory, but they’re the ones that win the ball games for us.”
The Tanner offensive line, coached by Russ Grimm and Matt Smith, includes junior left tackle Baltazar Rubio, freshman left guard Austin Lewter, junior center Shamoud Baker, senior right guard Tray Fletcher and junior right tackle Seth Smith.
“I think they’re getting better every game, and Russ and Matt have done an excellent job with the offensive line this year, which has allowed me to focus on the whole team this year,” White said. “The line is gelling and doing everything full-speed, and they have done everything we have asked them to do this year.”
The Rattlers’ O-line has paved the way for more than 4,000 rushing yards from running backs Hayden Stephens and Fred Rich, senior fullback Kyle Shoulders and sophomore quarterback Johnathan Fletcher, a 6-foot, 180-pound first-year starter who has ran for 359 yards and passed for 983 yards. Stephens, a junior, and Rich, a senior who has committed to UAB, have combined for more than 3,000 yards.
Tanner, which defeated Reeltown 35-14 last Friday to advance to the Super Six, doesn’t have an apparent edge over Washington County based on film study, White said, but his team has a quiver full of intangibles.
“We’re pretty evenly matched, and there’s no obvious advantage from looking at film,” White said. “They have more guys that play, and they have (different personnel) on the offensive and defensive lines. We’ll be fine — we’ll just have to be smart with our time-outs.”
The Rattlers have the bitter experience of falling to Elba 34-14 in the finals last season, and they are using the example set by team leaders Kyle Shoulders, Dexter Douglas and Greg Maclin to stay focused in their bid to bring home the school’s first Blue Map trophy in football and the county school system’s first since Clements in 1966.
Athens High School claimed the 5A championship in 2006, and back-to-back titles in 1975 and 1976. In the county, West Limestone (1957) and Ardmore (1958, 1961) also have won state championships in football.
“They’re not giddy,” said White, who ran the players through a light workout yesterday afternoon, took the team to dinner and skipped attending the 5A title game last night so the players could rest at the hotel instead. “We have the experience from last year, and we’re businesslike. I can tell the difference this year from last year — we have a goal in mind to win a state championship, and we just have to get it done.
“It would mean a lot to this county. This is a great county we live in with good football here, and for us to bring home a title means a great deal.”
Tanner’s defense has produced five shutouts this season, including three in the playoffs. The Rattlers have outscored Sand Rock, Walter Wellborn, Fultondale and Reeltown 152-14 in the first rounds of the playoffs.
Tanner is averaging 46.5 points per game, while allowing only 6.6 per contest.
“It’s going to be a physical, hand-to-hand combat game, and we just have to outlast them.”
Tickets are $12 at the gate. The game will be broadcast on WKAC 1080AM and at www.wkac1080.com.