It has been 20 years since Athens won a region championship in football. But thanks to the play of a backup quarterback and a little help, the Golden Eagles were able to claim the Class 6A, Region 8 championship Friday night.
Athens defeated Decatur 31-17 behind the play of backup quarterback Cal George, then learned Cullman defeated Muscle Shoals 30-29 on a last-second field goal. Those two results vaulted the Golden Eagles into first place in the region.
Athens (7-2, 6-1) finishes with the same region record as Cullman but has a head-to-head win over the Bearcats. Hartselle places third in the region, while Muscle Shoals slipped all the way to fourth. It is Athens' first region title since 2000, when the Golden Eagles were competing in Class 5A.
“It's quite an accomplishment to win this region,” Athens coach Cody Gross said. “I'm really proud for our players and our coaches for that.”
Gross said the region championship wasn't just for the players on the 2020 team, but for those who played for him since he became Golden Eagles coach in 2016.
“The guys that have been on the team since I've been here all have a part in this, the guys on that 3-7 team in 2016 and the 5-6 team in 2017 and so forth and so on,” Gross said. “All those guys laid a foundation. This wasn't an easy fix here. We didn't go out and recruit a whole bunch of players and try to get them to come to Athens. We just went to work and tried to do it the right way. And it's very satisfying to see (the region championship) happen.”
George was the hero of Friday night's game. The starting linebacker took on the added duties of starting quarterback when regular starter Jordan Scott was unable to play.
George threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Jaden Jude in the first half. He kept the offense moving on a night when star running back Jaylen Gilbert played just a few snaps in the first half. George played all but two snaps on defense and also played on the kickoff team.
“I can't say enough about Cal George,” Gross said. “That dude's a winner. He's a throwback player. He was able to manage the game for us offensively and played all but two snaps on the defensive side of the ball. That's a total team guy who's all about the team. Whatever it takes for us to win and be successful, he's going to do. He's the kind of guy that epitomizes this team. Just unselfish.”
With big-play offensive players Scott and Gilbert unable to play or limited, the Athens special teams unit stepped up.
Athens started the game when Jeremiah Rice ran the opening kickoff back 86 yards for a touchdown to put the Golden Eagles up 7-0. After George's touchdown pass on a flea flicker, Avonte Thompson had a 70-yard punt return set up a four-play 30-yard scoring drive that ended with a Dylan Roper 18-yard scoring run to make it 21-10 late in the second quarter.
Decatur moved the ball to the Athens 14 with 24 seconds left in the first half. The Red Raiders ran two plays, but the clock ran out before they could attempt a field goal.
Late in the third quarter, a Decatur fumble gave Athens the ball at the Red Raiders’ 8. Two players later, Jaym’n Draper scored to put Athens up 28-10.
Decatur cut the lead to 28-17 on Grayson Vermeire’s 23-yard run. There was 10:25 left in the game, but the Red Raiders failed to threaten on their last two possessions.
Athens added a field goal by backup kicker Yitbarek Nichols to close the scoring.
Athens has now won four straight against Decatur. That’s a first for the Golden Eagles. Athens had two previous three-game winning streaks over Decatur in 1980-82 and 1956-58.
Athens is open next week and will prepare for its first-round playoff game against Homewood, the No. 4 team from Region 5.
“This week is going to be big for us,” Gross said. “We've got to get better and heal up a little bit. We're going to spend this week focusing on us and then start focusing on Homewood next week.”