By Matthew Martin/Sports Correspondent
Highly anticipated games many times do not live up to the build-up.
Last Friday’s Etowah-Southside football game lived up to the pre-game hype and more.
Playing in front of one of the largest crowds to ever see a game at Barney Hood Stadium, No. 7 Southside used a big fourth quarter to defeat Etowah, 21-17, in Class 5A, Region 7 high school football action.
In the process of defeating the Blue Devils, the Panthers claimed the Region 7 title.
Speaking about the region championship, Southside interim coach Ron Daugherty said the team did not discuss it leading up to the game. But after winning it, he was happy to bring it up.
“Now I can talk about it,” Daugherty said. “I never did mention it to the kids, but of course they knew, they always know.
“It’s only the second region championship in the history of the school. It’s a great accomplishment.”
It is Panthers’ first region championship since 1980, but the undefeated season remained in doubt heading into the final quarter.
“They just kept believing,” Daugherty said. “That’s what we preach everyday. Believe that this stuff we’re making you do is for a good cause, and I think they bought into it.”
After three quarters, Southside (8-0, 6-0) trailed 17-7, as the Panthers were unable to get its running game – led by Dantley Coker and Blake Devine – going for most of the night.
But freshman Aleric Williams provided the spark the Panthers needed.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Williams – running behind All-State lineman Tyler Carr – broke through for a huge 49-yard run.
Williams’ long run set up a 9-yard Coker touchdown run. Combined with Carter West’s PAT, the score cut the Blue Devil lead to 17-14 with 10:55 left in the game.
On Etowah’s ensuing possession, sophomore running back Paul Ruiz got the Blue Devils going.
Ruiz’s 29-yard run moved the ball near midfield, and a couple of short runs later, Etowah (6-2, 4-2) was faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Southside 43-yard line.
The Blue Devils decided to go for it and picked up the first down. But a costly illegal motion penalty nullified the gain and forced Etowah to punt.
Southside started the game-winning drive at its own 22-yard line. Three Coker runs moved the ball to the 41-yard line, before Williams had another big play. The freshman rumbled for a 39-yard run, again running behind Carr, to move the ball deep into Etowah territory at the 20-yard line.
A big personal foul penalty, along with 6-yard loss on a Coker run, had Southside facing a third-and-32 on the 42-yard line.
Like most of Southside offensive plays, the Panthers lined up in the Wildcat formation. But for the first time this season, Southside threw the ball out of the formation.
Hunter Armstrong found Devine for a 42-yard touchdown pass to give the Panthers their first lead of the game. West’s PAT made the score, 21-17, with 5:27 left in the game.
Joking about the Panthers’ lack of passing, Southside’s Daugherty said the opportunity presented itself and the Panthers took it, throwing out of a running formation.
“We don’t run regular offensive passes,” Daugherty said. “When somebody gives us one-on-one (coverage on Devine), we feel like if you put it out there, he’s (Devine) going to make a play. That’s what he did. I’m proud of him.”
Holt Keeling and Devine intercepted passes on Etowah’s final two possessions to seal the victory.
In the first half, minus one run from Williams, it was all Etowah.
The Blue Devils opened the scoring on its second possession when quarterback Kordell Rudolph hit Lamar Thomas on a screen pass for a 63-yard touchdown.
Jose Mandragon’s PAT made the score 7-0 with 2:30 left in the first quarter.
Etowah added to its lead in the second quarter when Andy Noles also found Thomas open, this time for a 54-yard touchdown. Mandragon’s PAT increased the lead to 14-0 with 6:30 left in the first half.
Southside immediately answered, however.
Williams found an opening in the stout Etowah defense and outraced Blue Devil defenders for a 65-yard touchdown. Carter West’s PAT cut the deficit to 14-7 with 6:16 left in the second quarter.
Etowah added a 34-yard field goal from Mandragon with 2:13 left in the third quarter.
“I’m sick at my stomach now that we didn’t come out on top, but there’s a whole lot of lessons we can take from this,” Etowah coach Drew Noles said. “I’ll take complete blame for the loss, but I think our guys were ready to play.”
The crowd was ready for the game, as well. Fans began arriving three hours prior to kickoff, and was standing-room only by the time the game started. With no seat to be had, fans lined the stadium, standing five and 10 deep along the fence.
Southside defensive coordinator Charles Nails, on the field as the teams worked through their pregame warmups, said the atmosphere was electric, recalling big games between Etowah and Gadsden High School in the 1990s when he was an assistant coach with Gadsden.
“I’m glad our kids are getting to experience this,” Nails said.
“They’ve never played in a game like this before,” Nails added, his Panthers too young, or possibly not born yet, the last time a game as big as Friday night’s game had been played in Etowah County.
For Southside, Williams led the way with nine carries for 157 yards and a touchdown, while Coker had 23 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown.
Devine had nine carries for 31 yards, one reception for the 42-yard touchdown and had one interception, defensively.
Thomas led the Blue Devils with six receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
Noles completed 12-of-17 passes for 157 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, while Rudolph completed 8-of-10 passes for 98 yards and a score.
Ruiz had 12 carries for 72 yards, and had five receptions for 39 yards.
“I’ll take our team everyday,” Noles said. “I’m proud of their effort, I’m proud of how they carried themselves after the game, proud of the community, proud of our fans and I’m as glad, right now, to be an Etowah Blue Devil as I was when we got here. I’m glad our team is playing in games like this.”
Both teams conclude region play on Friday, with Southside travellng to Brewer and Etowah hosting Boaz.