By Kim West
AUBURN — Tied at halftime for the first time this season, No. 1 Tanner turned to its powerful running game and dominating defense to deflate fourth-ranked Washington 28-14 in the Super 6 Class 2A championship game on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon at Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
This was the Tanner football program’s first state title after its record-setting 14-1 campaign last season came to a sudden stop with a 34-14 loss to Elba in the 2A finals.
“It’s been a long, long journey ever since we came back Aug. 26 (in the season opener),” Tanner junior center Shamaud Baker said. “We knew we had to come back and show what we could do, and it’s like feeling on top of the world. I can’t wait to get back to T-town and live it up with everyone.
“I’m also thankful for our seniors who all stepped up and led us to the state championship.”
The Rattlers (14-0) did not trail all season and produced five shutouts. They defeated Sand Rock, Walter Wellborn, Fultondale, Reeltown and Washington County by a margin of 180-28 in five playoff games this season.
Tanner outgained Washington County 307-215 in total yardage, including a 290-82 advantage on the ground. The Rattlers held a 17-11 edge in first downs and converted all three fourth-down attempts.
“Tanner did some things to make it difficult for us,” said Washington County coach Chris Wilson, who guided the Bulldogs to a 13-2 mark and their first Super 6 appearance. “They are a very deserving team, but it doesn’t take away from what we did this year.”
After swapping turnovers with the Bulldogs, Tanner led 7-0 in the first quarter on a 25-yard scoring run by the game’s most valuable player, Fred Rich.
The senior running back had 13 carries for 79 yards and two touchdowns, including seven carries for 35 yards during a key drive in the fourth quarter. He added six tackles, a pass breakup and an interception.
The Bulldogs (13-1) responded in the second quarter to tie the game at 7-7 with a 5-yard run off right tackle by T.J. Kidd, who finished with 81 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown.
Tanner took the second-half opening kickoff and marched 80 yards in 11 plays, including a 27-yard keeper by Johnathan Fletcher, a 16-yard Stephens burst up the middle and a 17-yard completion to Greg Maclin. Fletcher faked a handoff on a read-option play, evaded several tacklers and darted to the right pylon for a 5-yard score that put the Rattlers ahead 14-7.
Washington County quarterback Dane Howard drove the Bulldogs to the Tanner 4, but he was flushed out of the pocket by pressure from Baker and threw into coverage. Rich intercepted Howard in the middle of the field and returned it to the Tanner 26.
After a three-and-out Blake Whitt punted for only the second time for the Rattlers. Howard found Lavonte Boman for an 8-yard completion and tried to connect with him again on a deep route down the right sideline, but Deshaun Freeman came away with the interception.
The Rattlers slammed the door shut with a 12-play, 93-yard drive that took 5:33 off the clock. Rich, Hayden Stephens, Kyle Shoulders and Fletcher combined to run 12 times for 78 yards on the drive, capped by a 4-yard run over left tackle Baltazar Rubio and left guard Austin Lewter to give Tanner a 21-7 lead with less than six minutes remaining.
Fletcher increased the lead to 28-7 late in the fourth quarter when he stepped in front of a Howard pass and returned it 40 yards for the touchdown. Fletcher also picked him off in the first quarter.
Howard finished 8 of 18 for 133 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. The Tanner defense tied an AHSAA Super 6 record for INTs. Rich and Freeman had one each and Fletcher snagged two, including a pick six.
Washington County made the final score 28-14 in the closing minutes when Dane hit DeMarcus Holcombe for a 19-yard touchdown.
Freshman Allen Rios was 4 of 4 on extra points for Tanner, while Jon-Michael Davidson finished 2 of 2 for the Bulldogs.
Stephens rushed for 139 yards and had a 2A Super 6 record-breaking 29 carries.
Eight seniors — Greg Maclin, Bubba Smith, Kendrick Jamar, Fred Rich, Dexter Douglas, Kyle Shoulders, Tray Fletcher and Rashard Gill — led a youthful 34-member team with 17 ninth- and tenth-graders.
The Rattlers, who defeated 3A state champion Madison Academy 13-7 during the first week of the regular season, have compiled a 49-4 record in the past four seasons.
Tanner is the first county football program to win a state championship since Clements in 1966.
“The thing I will never forget is how my teammates and me came together,” Baker said. “We all came together as a family, and worked as one to accomplish our goal. We’re going to come back next year and try to win another championship.”