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Saraland shows it can keep its hand in the fire

Saraland’s Jamison Curtis (8) blocks a punt by Lipscomb’s Cole Shulman in the fourth quarter Friday night. Curtis had seven tackles and returned a fumble 78 yards for a touchdown in the Spartans’ 31-30 victory. (Todd Stacey/Call News)

SARALAND — Rarely challenged last year on the way to the state championship, Saraland found itself embroiled in a genuine fight for survival Friday night against Lipscomb Academy.

It was protracted combat, given all the ESPN commercials and heat timeouts, the only pauses in an otherwise honorable effort to bend each other’s faces into a vat of hot tar.

This was expected. The esteemed and nationally ranked Mustangs had won 21 straight games and two straight Tennessee state championships before this year, so few objective thinkers believed it would be as easy for the Spartans as flattening a smash burger on a grill.

It was impossible to say which was hotter: The frying pan, the fire or the fake grass, which radiated very real heat, which turned into sinister fingers pulling the players into hell’s waiting room.

“We practiced in it in the middle of the day but it was still brutal,” Saraland center Bryceson Chastang said.

Critics overheated with hope that the Spartans averted a loss only because Lipscomb missed an extra-point kick that tickled the left upright in overtime, leaving Saraland with a 31-30 victory.

But did the Mustangs unearth any clues to beat the Spartans? So many things went against them and they still won.

You’d have a chance, as Lipscomb did, if you have three Power 5 prospects asphyxiating anything inside. It’s doubtful Saraland will see anybody better than Tennessee commitment Edwin Spillman and Kris Thompson at inside linebacker and defensive lineman Tony Carter, the main reasons the Spartans’ running game was strangled to 33 yards on 22 carries. And the Mustangs still lost.

Or you could push star receiver Ryan Williams out of bounds, as Lipscomb cornerback and Tennessee commitment Kaleb Beasley did when he intercepted quarterback K.J. Lacey and ran it back for a touchdown and a 14-6 lead early in the third quarter.

Beasley and his teammates played cover 3 and two high safeties to successfully take away the bomb but Lacey, Williams and C.D. Gill patiently picked away underneath.

By the end of the third quarter, Lacey and Gill had converted a third-and-13 pass to set up Saraland’s first TD and on the next series Lacey and Williams collaborated on an exquisitely executed hitch for a 50-yard scoring pass to give the Spartans their first lead.

The ball was out of Lacey’s hand with such velocity that it would have reached the parking lot had Williams not snagged it while starting his turn outside and upfield.

“I told K.J. he was going to shoot down there on that hitch,” Williams said. A startled Beasley, one of the nation’s best cornerbacks, couldn’t get there fast enough and Williams brushed him away like lint off his pants leg. Mr. Football then ran to the end zone like his pants were on fire.

Saraland was only 1 of 7 on third down, had a mere two snaps in the fourth quarter and won with just one explosive play and defense, which got coach Jeff Kelly’s attention.

“How many times last year did we win a defensive game?” he asked. “That’s what I’m most encouraged about.”

Allowing 30 points doesn’t seem like a defensive game until you consider Lipscomb scored on a pick-six and after an onside kick. The Mustangs were saddled until the fourth quarter, when quarterback Deuce Knight had a chance to run, set and throw against Saraland’s fading defense.

But even then, star defensive tackle Antonio Coleman, who had 10 tackles, said the Spartans were not about to concede.

“We were used to the heat and I think we had an advantage,” Coleman said. “They got gassed before us. Most of their offensive linemen were complaining about the heat. It definitely got to them.”

But what if Lipscomb’s Kofi Boggs, who brilliantly pulled off the last-minute onside kick that led to the tie game, had made the extra point in overtime? How much more could Saraland have taken?

“I honestly don’t know,” Coleman said. “I know we would have battled until we were done.”

The Spartans — all things considered pushed more than they ever were last year — beat a team coached by a Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman who infused his players with toughness by wearing two shirts, including a black, long-sleeved one, in the smothering heat.

“I am proud of how our players fought to put themselves in a position to win but we came up short,” Mustangs coach Kevin Mawae said. “It was a great game against a very good opponent. Our goal has always been to compete for our state championship and I wish coach Kelly and his team the best in their quest for the same.”

Because of that, Mawae and Kelly aren’t going to spend any time wondering if Saraland deserves to be ranked in the top 25 nationally.

“I cannot answer that,” Mawae said. “I think they are a very good team. National rankings are left up to someone else. I am sure coach Kelly is more concerned with winning the state title, as am I.”

Added Kelly: “Draw your own conclusions.”

There is plenty of time for that. But as Kelly warned his players the day before the game, the win better not be the highlight of the season.

“This was about our respect,” Williams said. “We wanted to get our respect on national TV.”

Now they must earn it again from inside the state.

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