By Kim West
A year ago Kyle Shoulders strapped on his battered green helmet for the last time and helped lead Tanner to a redemptive 28-14 win against Washington County in the Class 2A championship game.
Fast-forward to today and Shoulders, now a freshman on a football scholarship at Miles College in Birmingham, is squeezing in a morning class before taking Interstate 20/59 to Tuscaloosa for today’s 2A title rematch between No. 1 Tanner and No. 3 Washington County.
Shoulders, a starting linebacker and fullback on the 2012 champion team, will be among the convoy of fans making their way to the University of Alabama campus for the second time in three years after Tanner lost to Elba in the 2011 finals at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Today’s kickoff is set for 3 p.m. at Bryant-Denny. Visit http://www.fox54.com for television coverage listings or tune to My8 WAMY-TV if carried by your cable system.
“The first actual game I went to this season, it was hard and it felt really awkward sitting in the stands,” said Shoulders on Thursday after class. “I kept coming to more games and started evolving into the fan role.
“I’m a proud Rattler now, and it feels good to be out there watching the team doing the same thing we did last year.”
The Rattlers (12-1) were favored to win the championship last year but enter today’s game against the Bulldogs (13-1) as somewhat of an underdog, with some pundits predicting a Tanner loss for a program that has won 51 of 54 games since 2010 and three North Division titles.
Tanner’s lone loss this season came in Week 1 against defending Class 3A champion Madison Academy, which claimed its second consecutive state title in Thursday’s 31-14 win against Leeds.
Last year a 14-0 Tanner team defeated Sand Rock, Walter Welborn, Fultondale, Reeltown and Washington County by a scoring margin of 180 to 28 points.
This year’s squad has walked a postseason tightrope, both thrilling and worrying a fan base so dedicated that one Tanner teacher is missing the game today because she said her bad-luck mojo could negatively affect the outcome.
In the first four rounds, Tanner has beaten Woodland, North Sand Mountain, Montgomery Academy and Fyffe by a margin of 110-67, with all four requiring come-from-behind victories by the resilient Rattlers.
For Shoulders, the Tanner’s winning mentality seems to rev into high gear when facing adversity.
“I would always say in the back of my mind or turn to someone and say, ‘Something miraculous is going to happen and give us momentum,’” he said. “And then something would happen — it’s the same thing with (those) Auburn Tigers.
“Something comes out of (Tanner) when they know they can lose — in the last minutes they’re at their best. They just turn into a different team to me.”
Targeting a title repeat
The key to this year’s championship game could be an offensive line that has worn down opposing defenses down the stretch.
Baltazar “Tito” Rubio, Austin Lewter, Shamaud Baker, Peyton Sales and Seth Smith have paved the way for another stellar season for senior running back Hayden Stephens, who has 1,986 yards and 28 total touchdowns this year.
During the postseason, Stephens has piled up 692 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, including the Rattlers’ only TDs in last Friday’s 16-7 win at Fyffe.
“I feel like their best chance of winning is if they just run the ball straight (ahead), and every now and then pop a pass up to Blake (Whitt),” said Shoulders, whose extended family includes Tanner punter Jalen Houston, defensive back Zakari Shoulders, fullback Zacobe Shoulders and quarterback JonJon Fletcher.
Shoulders, who sent out several “pump-up” texts to remind his former teammates to stay focused, said the outcome of the game rests squarely with the effort given from start to finish by Tanner.
“I can’t really say if this will be a low-scoring or high-scoring game,” he said. “You just have to go down there and enjoy it. For a while we couldn’t get past the third round, but then we got past that.
“Life is choices. It’s all right to be nervous, but as long as they go out there and put in 100 percent effort in everything they do, then they’ll reap what they sow.”