East Limestone's season didn't get off to a very good start. The Indians had to cancel their first scheduled game, then suffered a shutout loss to Mars Hill in their first game.
But the Indians have recovered to win six consecutive games and clinch a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
East clinched at least second place in Class 5A, Region 8 Thursday night with a 45-14 victory over region rival Ardmore.
“We've been through a lot this year, so I'm proud of these seniors,” East Limestone coach Jeff Pugh said. “I'm proud for our community, proud for East Limestone High School and everybody involved. These guys deserve it, and they deserve to get on a bus next week and go play for a region championship. I think there's no doubt about it we're one of the top teams in the region.”
A shorthanded Ardmore team gave East Limestone all it could handle for nearly three quarters. But after cutting the Indians' lead to 17-14 midway through the third quarter, East scored the final 28 points of the game as Ardmore's lack of depth came back to haunt them.
Ardmore coach P.J. Wright said he was without several players Thursday due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols. That was in contrast to East Limestone, which had nearly its full team for the first time this season. Only one Indians player had to sit out Friday's game due to quarantine.
“I knew going into this game that this was the first time Coach Pugh was really loaded with kids, and this was really the first time we were not fully loaded with kids,” Wright said. “We played with 26 kids and got two injured, so we were down to 24 and have got people playing out of position. We show up with the least number of kids we've got to play in a big region game, knowing that only half of the people that are here are actually going to play in the game.”
East Limestone unleashed a new weapon in Thursday's game, a passing attack. Quarterback Dillon Parris had the best game of his career, completing 11-of-12 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. East had a balanced offensive attack, rushing for 195 yards and passing for 174. The Indians defense held Ardmore to just 169 total yards.
“I'm proud of him, because he's gone through a lot,” Pugh said of his senior quarterback. “Everything gets blamed on the quarterback, but it ain't the quarterback's fault when he's getting hit all the time. We hadn't been doing a good job the past two games of protecting or blocking, so I hope we got better tonight.”
The Indians got on the board first when Syrus James capped off a long drive with a 27-yard field goal midway through the first quarter.
East Limestone added to its lead when Parris threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Kollin Swart. The score was set up by a 36-yard completion from Parris to James earlier in the drive.
However, Ardmore, which had just 5 offensive yards to that point in the game, used its special teams to get right back in the game, as Conner Harbin returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown that made the score 10-7 after Xzander Atkins' extra point.
After the teams traded punts on their next possession, East got the ball back with just over 2 minutes remaining in the half. A 60-yard completion from Parris to James put the Indians in scoring position, and Parris capped it off with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Gardner with 43 seconds remaining before halftime.
However, Ardmore wouldn't go away. The Tigers received the opening kickoff of the second half and drove for their only offensive touchdown. Quarterback Owen Doss capped off the drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Brody Dunn to close the score to 17-14 with 7:11 remaining in the third quarter.
But East would quickly respond with a touchdown drive of its own. A 35-yard run by Gardner put the Indians inside Ardmore's 15-yard line, and Jamison Drake would score on a 1-yard plunge a few plays later to give the Indians a 10-point lead.
East Limestone then dominated the fourth quarter, scoring three touchdowns to put the game away. Gardner opened the quarter with a 26-yard touchdown run to give East some breathing room, then Parris threw his third touchdown of the night when he pitched the ball forward to Swart, who did the rest of the work on an 18-yard jaunt to the end zone.
Swart put the icing on the cake when he intercepted a pass and returned it 47 yards for a score for the final margin.
Pugh said he was proud of the way his team pulled away in the fourth quarter to take control of the game.
“Ardmore's an improved team, and I knew we were going to be in for a dogfight, but I told them it was going to take 48 minutes to beat us though,” he said. “We kept getting stronger, and that's a thing I take great pride in, with our football team. It ain't about the name on the front, it ain't about the name on the back, it ain't about the number, it's about the heart. And that heart has built our program.”
Gardner finished the game with 150 rushing yards on 18 carries, while Swart had eight catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. James had two receptions for 96 yards, while also kicking a field goal and six extra points.
Ardmore was led by Chris Allen, who had 67 rushing yards and 39 receiving yards in the game.
East Limestone can win the region championship with a victory Friday at Russellville, while Ardmore (4-3, 1-3) needs to win its next two games, against Lee-Huntsville and Mae Jemison, in order to make its first playoff appearance since 2013.