Photo: Hokes Bluff’s Jalen Robinson (8) catches a touchdown pass in front of Northside’s Wes Maluda during the Eagles’ 35-21 loss in the first round of the Class 4A state football playoffs last Friday (Nov. 8) in Northport. (Alex Chaney)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Hokes Bluff’s football season came to an end on Nov. 8 with a 35-21 road loss to No. 4 Northside in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs at Northside Stadium in Northport.
The loss ends one of the best four-year stretches in program history. The Eagles (7-4) won 37 games over the last four seasons, including four straight appearances in the playoffs, one semifinal appearance and three trips to the quarterfinals.
“Ashton (Gulledge) and Darrian (Meads) are the leaders of the whole senior squad, and they’re special players,” said Hokes Bluff coach Mike Robertson. “All of the seniors — I’m fixing to tell them how much I appreciate them. It’s about players. You win with players.
“We’ve had a heck of a year with adversity. I mean that very sincerely. I don’t like to make excuses, but they had a lot of reasons to make excuses this year, but they didn’t do it. I’m really proud of them.
Gulledge forced a Northside fumble on the opening kickoff and the Eagles recovered on the Ram 35-yard line. However, Hokes Bluff couldn’t capitalize on the turnover. Northside took over and scored in six plays on a 12-yard run by John Hutchinson. The Rams sold out to stop Meads and the Hokes Bluff running game, so the Eagles started attacking through the air. Gulledge connected with Jalen Robinson on a 42-yard post pattern to even the score a 7-7 with 3:24 remaining in the opening quarter. Hokes Bluff forced a Northside three-and-out and agaim attacked through the air. Gulledge threw a jump ball to Meads, who came down with the ball over two defenders for a 22-yard gain. A holding call pushed the ball back to the Ram 22-yard line, but Gulledge found Robinson again for a 22-yard touchdown strike to put the Eagles on top 14-7 at the end of the first quarter. It didn’t take the Rams long to respond. Northside quarterback Jake Corkren led his team quickly down the field and capped off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Wes Maluda to even the score at 14-14 with 9:17 left in the second quarter. The Eagles went three-and-out and the Rams took over on the Hokes Bluff 40-yard line. Hutchinson scored his second touchdown of the half from five yards out to give the Rams a 21-14 advantage with 5:28 left in the half. Hokes Bluff responded with a physical drive, and Meads finally started to find some running room. He burst through the line for a 20-yard gain, and Gulledge found Robinson again for a 17-yard completion to move the ball in the red zone. A holding call on third-and-five from the 9-yard line pushed the Eagles back, however, and they attempted a 35-yard field goal that fell just short. The opening possession of the second half ended with a quick punt for Hokes Bluff that pinned the Rams deep into their own territory.
On the third play of the drive, Gulledge intercepted Corkren and returned the ball to the Northside 30-yard line. However, the Eagles once again squandered the scoring opportunity again, failing to gain a single yard in four tries. Northside quickly responded with a 45-yard touchdown on a jet sweep by Blake Powell to push the lead to 28-14 with 6:50 left in the third quarter.
Hokes Bluff was facing another three-and-out when Robertson called for a fake punt, which Meads converted for a first down. However, the Eagles were forced to punt after losing five yards over the next three plays. Corkren attempted to scramble for a first down on the ensuing Ram possession but Hokes Bluff’s Jesse McLain forced a fumble that Nikelas Collins recovered the ball on the Northside 21-yard line. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the trend of the night continued, and they only gained three yards in four plays and failed to convert the turnover into points. The Hokes Bluff defense continued its strong second half by forcing another punt, and the Eagle rushing attack started clicking. Gulledge rushed for a 22-yard gain to move the ball into the red zone, and Meads carried for 12 yards on the next play down to the 4. Three plays later, Gulledge scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak to close the gap to 28-21 with 8:11 left in the game. Northside ran the ball eight straight times and worked its way into Hokes Bluff territory, and they faced a 4th-and-9 on the Eagles’ 16-yard line with just over three minutes remaining in the game. Corkren found Ashton Pugh in the corner of the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown pass with three minutes left in the game to put the Eagles away. “(Northside’s) guys are pretty good up front,” Robertson said. “They did a good job with their technique. A couple of their guys didn’t penetrate and sat there and waited on us, and a couple of them did penetrate. We knew they were pretty good up front. “I thought we would have to throw it, and we did throw it with some success but not enough success. (Northside’s) got a good team, and we knew that. We’re just a little inexperienced up front. But I thought we battled pretty hard. We had chances when it was 21-14. They’re pretty physical.” Northside (10-1) hosts Priceville in the second round of the playoffs. The win over Hokes Bluff was the first playoff victory in school history.
Hutchinson rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, while Powell added 76 yards and a score. Corkren completed nine passes for 160 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Meads rushed for 105 yards on 27 carries in the final game of his illustrious career. He surpassed the 8,000-yard rushing mark for his career on the final drive of the game. Gulledge, another four-year starter, completed seven passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, and he also ran for 60 yards and a score. Robinson caught four passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns – all in the first half.