By Kim West
AUBURN — Cradling the coveted Blue Map trophy, Tanner High School football coach Laron White couldn’t hold back a few tears of joy after his top-ranked Rattlers plowed past No. 4 Washington County 28-14 during the Class 2A state championship game at Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium Friday.
After getting jostled and doused with a cooler of Gatorade as the seconds ticked down, a jubilant White shared handshakes, hugs and smiles after winning the football program’s first state championship and erasing the bittersweet memory of falling to Elba 31-14 in last year’s 2A Super 6 finals.
“I am so thankful for the opportunity to coach these kids and to be in this game,” said White, who improves to 105-21 in a decade at Tanner. “It means so much to win this championship. For 10 years, you try to run a program the right way, and this is the ultimate payoff. I am so proud right now.”
Senior Fred Rich — 79 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns — and junior Hayden Stephens — a 2A Super 6-record 29 carries for 139 yards — helped lead a relentless Tanner ground attack that out-gained the Bulldogs 290-82 and tied another 2A Super 6 record with 55 carries.
“We have a physical group on the offensive line, and they have been giving us big holes to run through all season,” Stephens said. “I credit all the yards and touchdowns this year to them, and they have been the key to our success.”
The score was deadlocked 7-7 at halftime after Rich scooted into the end zone on a 25-yard, tackle-shedding run up the middle in the first quarter, and Washington County’s T.J. Kidd ran off right tackle for a 5-yard score in the second.
Tanner scored 21 unanswered points and picked off three Dane Howard passes in the second half to put the game away midway through the final quarter. The Rattlers — Fletcher (2), Deshaun Freeman (1) and Rich (1) — came away with a 2A Super 6 record-tying four interceptions for the game.
Johnathan Fletcher scored on a 5-yard, blooper-reel quarterback keeper in the third quarter and a 44-yard interception return late in the fourth period to ice the game.
Rich capped a 12-play, 93-yard drive with a 4-yard rumble over left tackle Baltazar Rubio and left guard Austin Lewter midway through the fourth.
Washington County made the final score 28-14 when Howard tossed a 19-yard TD to DeMarcus Holcombe in the closing minutes.
Dozens of family and friends waited patiently outside the locker room as the Rattlers finished their post-game prayer, and a few fans were still clutching the homemade posters they had been waving among a sea of black, green and white on the Tanner side of the stadium.
“Last year we got there (to the Super 6) and lost, and my son (right tackle Seth Smith) let that eat at him all year,” said Jeff Smith. “They were bound and determined to get back and knew they were going to give everything they had to try and win it this time.
“When that clock ticked down, I thought I was going to shed a tear, and I did. It was just a mixture of feelings — relief, joy and happiness.”