By Kim West
TUSCALOOSA — Similar to the frigid rain that soaked Bryant- Denny Stadium, the accolades came pouring down after top-ranked Tanner stormed back from another deficit, seizing its second straight state championship with a 21-13 late-afternoon victory against No. 3 Washington County in a clash of Class 2A titans.
Shivering and poncho-covered fans stood lined up in the stadium tunnel near the locker room and greeted each Rattler as he emerged to bursts of applause and raucous cheers.
Washington County coach Chris Wilson praised the Rattlers for their “class” and “sportsmanship,” taking the time during his post-game press conference to describe Tanner senior nose tackle Baltazar “Tito” Rubio as a “stud” with his ability to stuff the run and rush the passer.
Reporters noted Tanner’s five comeback wins in the postseason and pondered the legacy of a school with seven state championships spanning four sports, including five Blue Map trophies since 2011.
And Hayden Stephens, who played the game with a mantra of “taking care of the ball and running hard,” became the second Tanner running back in as many years to be named the game’s Most Valuable Player after Fred Rich won it in last season’s 28-14 win against Washington County in the 2A finals.
Stephens’ 23-carry, 159-yard performance featured two of Tanner’s three touchdowns, including a 45-yard scamper after the Bulldogs opened the game with a 74-yard kickoff return that seemed to both startle the crowd and rev up the Rattlers.
A year ago amid much milder weather, Tanner center Shamaud Baker stood near the locker rooom at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn as he fielded questions about the program’s first-ever title in football.
Baker, now a senior, said the Rattlers were not satisfied with only one championship and added the team would be making another title run this season.
Jump ahead to Friday and Baker found himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rubio and linebacker/running back Ty Mayberry as they patiently answered questions despite their soaking-wet uniforms and a stiff wind whipping through Bryant-Denny.
As Baker put it, “We knew we could beat that team — we just had to play hard. The first half, we weren’t playing Tanner football. The second half, we came out and we had to grind.”
If last year’s title team got tagged with the dominance label and this year’s squad is characterized by its resiliency, then what lies ahead for a team seeking a three-peat bid in 2014?
For former Tanner linebacker and fullback Kyle Shoulders, the key to continued success is the same as the past: good team defense, running between the tackles and a blue-collar work ethic.
For Tanner’s Laron White, his 118th head-coaching victory “will take some time to settle in.” In the meantime, he pointed to the positives of his young roster.
“One of our coaches said the other day that we’ve got some young guys that don’t realize how serious it is,” said White. “That’s good because they’re relaxed a little more, and they’re not nervous. That’s kind of a blessing in disguise.”