UMS-Wright quarterback Joe Lott stretches for a first down but comes up short in the first quarter against Central Clay County in Lineville Friday night. (Stew Milne/Call News)
UMS-Wright players celebrate their 7-0 upset of Central Clay County in Lineville Friday night. (Stew Milne/Call News)
UMS-Wright coach Terry Curtis, left, and Central Clay County coach Danny Horn visit before their teams clashed in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs Friday night in Lineville. The game marked a historic first meeting between the top two winningest coaches of all time in Alabama. (Stew Milne/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
LINEVILLE — As UMS-Wright coach Terry Curtis walked toward his assembled players after a 7-0 upset of No. 3-ranked Central Clay County Friday night, the excited talking ceased.
“Shhhhh! Shhhhh!” someone hissed, and quiet fell upon the Bulldogs’ party as the winningest high school coach of all time in Alabama was about to speak.
“Y’all believe now?” Curtis asked. “I don’t know the last time I saw a defensive game like that.”
But other victims have seen this scenario replayed many times and found themselves on a heap of discarded favorites. It’s the playoffs. Inferior on paper. No chance.
How about no turnovers on a rain-slickened field against the No. 1 defense in Class 5A? How about a pulverizing hit by linebacker Perry Hand which caused a fumble UMS-Wright used to score the only touchdown it needed? How about winning with a punter, who also scored that touchdown?
If someone could have foretold the Bulldogs getting outgained 206 yards to 69 and resembling a leaky bucket the first time their defense was on the field, many people might have thought they would be packing up their equipment until the spring.
Instead, they packed up the Vols and headed back to Mobile to prepare for the second round of the playoffs.
In a rare postseason appearance as an unranked underdog, UMS-Wright (7-4) undercut undefeated Central Clay, took advantage of that fumble in the second quarter for William Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown run, then kept the Vols from mustering any other serious scoring threats.
In the historic first matchup of the two winningest coaches in state history, Curtis once again won a close game and beat Danny Horn at his own game as the Bulldogs forced two turnovers, avoided any themselves and played patient football while steadily roiling up the pressure on Central Clay.
“This one ranks right up there,” said Curtis, who is 355-97 in 35 seasons and, by virtue of the victory, is assured of remaining the all-time winningest coach going into next year.
A few weeks ago, his team was in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in Curtis’ 25-year career at UMS-Wright, a tenure which has featured eight state championships.
“The pressure was on them to try to get to the playoffs,” Curtis said of his players. “They didn’t want to be the team that broke the streak. I couldn’t be more proud of a bunch of kids.”
The victory showed again Curtis’ greatness in close games and in the rare cases when his teams are the underdog. In his career, he is 58-40 in one-score games, 13-5 against undefeated teams in the playoffs and 20-13 against higher-ranked or higher-seeded teams in the postseason.
“You always feel you have the advantage when you have coach Curtis,” Hand said. “We definitely didn’t want to lose. We’re ready to roll now.”
The Vols, who finished 10-1, outgained the Bulldogs 206 yards to 69, held them to three first downs and still lost.
“The best team won tonight,” said Horn, who is 351-97 in his career. “We got outcoached, outplayed and out-everythinged. We couldn’t get it going.”
It was Horn’s first shutout ever at Central Clay and the first for the Vols in 108 games dating back to 2015. Horn had not been shut out in 85 games going back to 2015, when he coached Benjamin Russell.
Central Clay — which was averaging 40 points per game — missed star running back Ladamion Boyd, who was on the sideline with a broken fibula, but Horn wasn’t sure if the outcome would have been different with him.
“Even if we had him, we’ve still got to block and we didn’t do a good job of that,” he said. “But give them credit too. They stopped the run and made us do something we don’t like to do and that’s throw the ball.”
The Vols threatened on their first possession as Damari Whetstone broke a 32-yard run and then raced 34 yards for a touchdown which was negated by a holding call.
“If we had scored on that first possession, it might have been different,” Horn said. “We had the touchdown called back on a holding call — and it was a hold. But it had nothing to do with the play. We didn’t play smart.”
After that, Central Clay got stopped at UMS-Wright’s 20 on fourth-and-2 in the first quarter, at the 17 on safety Joe Lott’s interception in the second quarter and had time run out in the first half after reaching the Bulldogs’ 19.
The Vols didn’t cross midfield in the second half.
The game’s only points came after Hand’s jarring hit on Whetstone, which sheared the ball away for Mac McGinley to recover at Central Clay’s 25 in the second quarter. Then on third-and-20, Lott rolled to his right, reversed field and flung a 21-yard pass to Rowen McMahan, who caught the ball in a crowd and stayed inbounds at the 2. Taylor scored two plays later.
“That turnover was a big one, then we hit the pass down to the 2-yard line,” Curtis said. “If we hadn’t done that, I’m not sure but that we’d still be playing.”
The unblocked Hand had a choice on the play — hit Whetstone or quarterback Darren Harris. He chose both.
“I was supposed to squeeze and squat but I went ahead and hit them both,” Hand said.
Curtis, who is 24-1 in the first round at UMS-Wright, said the victory rested on the foot of Taylor, who punted 10 times for a 35.6-yard average.
“Our most valuable player might be the punter,” Curtis said. “We didn’t want to give them good field position and Taylor kept them backed up.”
The Vols had only 23 yards in returns as Taylor made them start possessions at their 38, 26, 30, 30, 28, 27, 32, 33, 28 and 32. Taylor’s last four punts were 39, 38, 41 and 37 yards.
Central Clay had 158 yards rushing, led by Whetstone’s 109 on 22 carries, but was 3 of 13 on third down.
“We had to stop them from running,” Curtis said. “But everytime I looked up, we were in our stack defense and they played it to perfection tonight.”
Incredibly, the Vols held the Bulldogs to 31 yards rushing on 31 carries and still lost.
“Their linebackers were there before you knew it,” Lott said. “But you couldn’t ask for anything more, beating an undefeated team. They’ve got a great coach and great players and we knew they wouldn’t quit. We knew it would be tough but it’s the playoffs now and everybody is 0-0.”
UMS-Wright visits Headland (10-2) in the second round Friday at 7 p.m.