By Kim West
TUSCALOOSA — In a showdown of two of the perennial powerhouses in Class 2A, No. 1 Tanner battled back to defeat No. 3 Washington County, 21-13, in Friday’s Super Six football championship at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The Rattlers (13-1) completed their fifth consecutive comeback of the postseason to claim its second straight state title behind 159 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries by the game’s Most Valuable Player, senior running back Hayden Stephens, and a command performance by an offensive line with three seniors and two sophomores.
“Last year’s team was kind of stacked,” Stephens said when asked about a Tanner squad that finished 14-0 and had four players who signed college football scholarships. “This year we had to work as hard as we could for each win. It means a lot because we had to work a lot harder for this one than we did last year.”
Amid near-freezing rain, Stephens shot through a gaping hole up the middle on a 45-yard scamper in the first quarter to tie the game at 7-7 before Tanner trailed again at halftime, 13-7.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Stephens produced the go-ahead touchdown when he lined up in his favorite alignment, the deep I-formation. The second score by the 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pound back capped a 13-play, 67-yard drive with a 1-yard run to put Tanner on top, 14-13, and seized the momentum away from the Bulldogs.
The Rattlers’ sophomore power runner, Ty Mayberry, and quarterback JonJon Fletcher drew the Bulldogs’ defense to the middle of the line, allowing Stephens to veer left and trot untouched into the end zone.
The Washington County defensive coaches said they had game-planned extensively for Stephens, who finished the year with 2,142 yards and 30 total touchdowns, including 28 rushing.
“He is a great football player — some people look at him and say he’s not overly big or overly fast, but he’s very quick,” said Washington County coach Chris Wilson, whose team finished 13-2. “He’s really good at what he does and reads the whole field.”
Mayberry tacked on a 1-yard insurance touchdown over right tackle on the heels of a 9-yard run by Fletcher, slamming the door shut on the Bulldogs with 3:38 left in the third quarter.
The final Tanner touchdown was set up by a 58-yard run by Stephens when he burst through the middle of the field and angled toward the right sideline before being tackled by Kerrigan Pennington at the Washington County 10-yard line.
Mayberry, who had 11 tackles on defense, finished with 32 yards rushing on 10 carries, but his hard-nosed running style up the middle helped Tanner move the chains.
Senior defensive back Deshun Freeman came up with another clutch interception, picking off Pennington at the Tanner 15-yard line. The only turnover by either team halted the Bulldogs’ potential game-winning drive with 1:43 remaining in the fourth.
Freeman — who finished with seven interceptions this season, including three in the playoffs — had a team-high 12 tackles and also had a 34-yard punt return that aided Tanner’s field position in the third quarter.
Fletcher had 10 tackles from his safety position, including several key stops in the second half, and kept drives alive with his scrambling ability.
The dual-threat quarterback, who finished the season 63 of 103 passing for 1,125 yards, 15 touchdowns and only five INTs and rushed 123 times for 634 yards and 12 TDs, did not turn the ball over.
Fletcher, who only threw five times against Washington County with two completions, found a wide-open Blake Whitt for a key 12-yard reception on a fourth-and-7 at the Bulldogs’ 35-yard line that kept the Rattlers’ touchdown drive on track in the third quarter.
“That’s been our best pass all year — it’s a crossing route and one we scored with against (3A champion) Madison Academy earlier this year,” said Tanner coach Laron White, who improved to 118-22 overall in 11 seasons with the Rattlers, including 24-9 in the playoffs. “Most of the time we run it, it’s a good completion. A majority of the time we throw it to the receiver on the wheel route. Jonathon made a good read.”
White praised the play-call by offensive coordinator Austin Marsh and added that Whitt, the team’s leading receiver, hung onto the ball despite having the wind knocked out of him when he snagged Fletcher’s pass in the middle of the field and was met by Washington County’s Colby Donaldson and Deandra Smith.
Whitt, who also starts at defensive back, had a bone-jarring tackle in Tanner’s 16-7 win at Fyffe in the semifinals in a collision that popped off his helmet and left him with a nasty gash to his head and three stitches.
“He made a great catch and gave his body up,” said White, who drew a chuckle from Fletcher when he talked about dialing up a pass on a drive that featured runs on 12 of 13 plays. “It was a big call at a big time. Whenever (we) call passes, I get nervous anyway, and I’m glad it worked out for us.”
Bottling up the Bulldogs
Pennington, a senior, accounted for 114 of Washington County’s 216 yards of total offense, running 11 times for 29 yards and completing 7 of 16 passes for 85 yard with one interception.
The Bulldogs’ star running back, DeAnthony Holcombe, was held to 83 yards on 23 carries with no touchdowns.
Tanner defensive coordinator Bobby Earl Greene’s unit, anchored by 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound nose tackle Baltazar “Tito” Rubio, prevented Holcombe from getting into the secondary, limiting the junior to 3.4 yards per carry and a long gain of 10 yards after he amassed 31 touchdowns and 1,579 yards through the Bulldogs’ previous 14 games.
The disciplined and swarming Rattlers held Washington County to a season-low 13 points in a ground-based game that saw the teams combine for 109 runs plays, with only 21 passes. Seven of the 13 points came on a special-teams kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening play.
The Bulldogs entered the game averaging 42.2 points, with a previous low of 28 points scored against Sweet Water in a 28-18 semifinal victory and a 28-18 regular-season win against Mobile Christian.
“They just do a great job of getting their safeties down and getting involved in the running game, and stringing things out,” said Wilson, whose team ran 44 times for only 131 yards. “Baltazar Rubio is a stud and makes it difficult to run between the tackles … we knew we had to hit our plays when we had our chances.”
Washington County scored on the game’s opening kickoff when Donaldson raced along the left sideline for a 74-yard return. Tight end Diamante Green ran in from seven yards out in the second quarter to give the Bulldogs a six-point halftime lead before Tanner put up 14 unanswered points in the second half.
“We basically tried to wear them down until the fourth quarter and everything was going great (when) it was 13-7,” Wilson said. “Then they made a couple of plays in the third and the one on fourth (down). We just never could quite catch up.”
Tanner kicker Alan Rios converted 3 of 3 on extra points, and Washington County’s Christian Coe was 1 of 2 after missing the PAT following the Bulldogs’ second-quarter score.
The Bulldogs’ Randall Coxwell punted only two times for a 32.9 average. The Rattlers’ punter, starting linebacker Jalen Houston, booted nine punts for a 30.9 average, including a booming 46-yarder that pinned Washington County at its own 6-yard line with 8:43 left to play in the game.
Backed up in the shadows of its own end zone, the Bulldogs’ drive reached Tanner territory before Whitt and Houston halted Kerrigan on a QB keeper for two yards on third-and-7 at the Tanner 39 and Pennington threw incomplete to 6-foot-3-inch tight end Chad Chapman to cause a turnover on downs at the 5:18 mark.
Tanner improves to 41-2 in the past three seasons, with two state titles, three Super Six appearances and four Region 8 championships.
“They made the plays down the stretch. They played with a lot of class and a lot of sportsmanship, and it was just a great game,” said Wilson.
The Rattlers lost eight seniors after the program’s first championship last season, with seven graduating from this year’s squad in Whitt, Rubio, Stephens, Baker, Freeman, Seth Smith and Chris Townsend.
“To be a state champion again, it feels great,” said Baker, the starting center who also had 10 tackles and two tackles for a loss from his defensive line position and predicted after last year’s title game that Tanner would make another championship run. “Everybody said we couldn’t do it. That just made us stronger in the locker room, and it feels good to know that we did it and didn’t give up.”
• Game captains were Tanner’s Blake Whitt, Seth Smith, Shamaud Baker and Tito Rubio and Washington County’s Kerrigan Pennington and Cedric Chapman;
• Tanner coach Laron White made a savvy decision after his team won the coin toss and elected to defer until the second half, with the Rattlers scoring the go-ahead touchdown on its opening drive in the third quarter;
• The Tanner athletic program has won seven state championships — two apiece in football, girls basketball and boys basketball and one in boys track;
• The Rattlers tied a 2A title game record with nine punts after Reeltown punted nine times in 2009;
• Tanner hasn’t lost a 2A contest since losing to Elba, 34-14, in the championship game at Bryant-Denny in 2011;
• Hayden Stephens eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight season.