Photo: Coosa Christian’s Grayson Malone tackles Pickens County’s Roz Cunningham as Grant Morgan (right) and Josh Hester (left) arrive during the Conquerors’ 21-12 victory in the Class 1A state football semifinals on Dec. 1 in Gadsden. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Unlike Coosa Christian’s Class 1A state football semifinal loss against Pickens County last season, there was no disputed last-second call in the teams’ rematch last Friday (Dec. 1) in Gadsden.
The Conqueror defense made sure that there would be no repeat of the team’s 84-point shootout in 2022, as Coosa limited the Tornadoes to 34 yards rushing while holding on three fourth-down conversion attempts on the way to a 21-12 victory and the program’s first-ever AHSAA state title game appearance.
The Conquerors (9-5) will face defending champion Leroy (13-0) on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 3 p.m. at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Coosa took a slim 7-6 lead out of intermission before scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions of the second half.
Pickens County cut it to 21-12 with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Conquerors answered with an eight-play, 49-yard drive that drained the remainder of the game clock.
Coosa did not attempt a pass in the second half, relying instead on the legs of quarterback John David Justus and running backs Josh Hester and Karon Wilson to move the chains. Along with two carries from Clete O’Bryant, the Conquerors rushed 58 times for 298 yards.
“We run the ball and we stop the run; that’s who we are,” said Coosa Christian head coach Mark O’Bryant. “We’re really good up front on both sides of the ball. Defensively, it’s hard to run on us. On offense, [linemen] Eric Rhoden, Caleb Besson, Dylan East, Jon Cook and Zayden Franklin are big, physical and dominating.
“[Pickens County] has been to the semifinals something like eight years in a row, so we know they’d be tough. [Head coach] Michael Williams is a first-class coach and a first-class person who runs a great program.”
Justus, who ran 11 times for 21 yards and a TD, is a three-year starter at signal-caller for the Conquerors. He currently is 117 for 205 in passing for 1,834 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“Ever since that last play against Pickens County last year, we kept that in the back of our minds,” he said. “We knew what we were going to do the next time we played them. We knew that from the amount of work we’ve put in, we were in better condition than [Pickens County]. Our goal was to out-physical them, and you could tell in the second half that they were tired.”
Hester gained 96 yards on 15 attempts. He currently has 514 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 74 carries.
“Everything about our offensive line is beautiful,” he said. “We communicate really well. We’re like a family, and I feel a special bond with them. We’ve also got some excellent coaches who teach us the right techniques.”
Wilson rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. He currently has 569 rushing yards and eight TDs on 81 attempts.
“I can’t say enough about our guys up front,” he said. “They work hard and open up the holes, and we couldn’t do what we do without them. While other teams were having fun last summer, we were out here working, because our goal is to win a state championship game, not just go to it. It’s ring or bust for us.”
Radley Mayes led the way defensively with 10 tackles, followed by D.J. Mackey with nine, Hester with eight (including three for as loss), Clete O’Bryant with seven and Grayson Malone with five. Mackey, Besson, Cade Mickler and Eli Motes each had a sack.
The Conquerors took the lead for good on their third drive of the game, a 60-yard, 10-play series that was highlighted by runs of 28 and 27 yards by Wilson. Hester capped off the possession with a two-yard touchdown run at 1:25 of the first period. Jadan Burns nailed the first of his three extra points of the night.
The Coosa defense held on a fourth down conversion attempt and forced four punts in the first half, but the Tornado offense finally broke through shortly before halftime when Kemaurion Plott threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Jones. The PAT failed, however, and the Conquerors entered the break ahead 7-6.
After Pickens County went three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half, Coosa drove 75 yards on 11 straight running plays, the last being Wilson’s 14-yard TD run at the midway point of the third quarter.
The next Pickens County series ended in a third failed fourth down conversion attempt, giving the Conquerors the ball at their own 26-yard line. A 40-yard run by Hester helped moved the hosts inside the Tornado 5. Justus eventually did the honors from a yard out for a 21-6 advantage early in the fourth period.
The teams traded punts before Plott scored from 15 yards away with four minutes left, but the Tornadoes never got the ball back.
“This is a big accomplishment, and I’m really happy and really proud for our guys,” said Mark O’Bryant. “Everybody works hard, but we just happened to do the right things at the right times this season, and the ball bounced the right way for us this year.”