Mary Montgomery’s Shondell Harris (18) looks for running room but will get stopped on a crucial fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the first quarter against Central-Phenix City Friday night. The Red Devils went on to a 21-7 win to advance to the Class 7A state championship game. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
Mary Montgomery quarterback Jared Hollins scores on a 9-yard run in the fourth quarter against Central-Phenix City Friday night. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
Mary Montgomery cornerback Jariell Lett flips Central-Phenix City receiver Cam Coleman on a short gain Friday night. The Vikings held the Texas A&M commitment to three catches for 34 yards. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
PHENIX CITY — Mary G. Montgomery coach Zach Golson hunched over, his hands on his knees, his head down staring at the turf as Central-Phenix City players celebrated.
If it seemed Golson had taken a punch to the solar plexus, he had. His Vikings had been outgained nearly two-to-one and had two nearly flawless first-quarter drives end with no points, yet they refused to buckle.
But then Golson straightened out and began to take inventory of the greatest season in school history.
“The effort our kids gave us this year and the last two years can’t be matched anywhere,” Golson said after No. 3-ranked MGM’s 21-7 loss to the No. 1-ranked Red Devils in the Class 7A semifinals Friday night at Garrett-Harrison Stadium. “All the glory belongs to God. This season has brought me great joy and the community great joy. It’s a tough game, a physical game, and they laid it on the line every week.”
Mary Montgomery’s entire season — and perhaps Central-Phenix City’s — tilted on one yard in the first quarter.
The Vikings seemed destined to tie the game 7-7 after driving 80 yards in 18 plays and siphoning 8½ minutes off the clock but Shondell Harris was stopped for a yard’s loss on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
After the goal-line stand, the Red Devils drove 98 yards in 13 plays for a 14-0 second-quarter lead.
“We responded well given that we had the ball only three times in the first half,” Central coach Patrick Nix said. “We did a good job jumping out early.”
The loss ended the best season in Mary Montgomery history (12-1) and sent the Red Devils (12-0) into the Super 7 against four-time defending state champion Thompson (11-1) on Dec. 6 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Central outgained MGM 394 yards to 196 and held star Vikings quarterback Jared Hollins to 16-of-28 passing for 114 yards in the final game of his high school career. Hollins, who didn’t throw a touchdown pass in the playoffs after hurling 29 in the regular season, was effective with the quick game early until the Red Devils’ defensive line began to assert itself.
“They didn’t slow down until the last four minutes,” Hollins said of that front, led by Alabama commitment Isai Faga and end Tristan Lyles. “We like to spread people out and make them chase us and they were tough. Our offensive line was playing against some great players. They’re a little undersized but they fought for me. I wouldn’t want to take the field with anybody else.”
MGM moved the ball well in the first quarter — amassing 104 yards on two drives to Central’s 26 and the 1 — but had just 92 yards the rest of the way.
“We had a false start that got us out of kilter on that first drive,” Golson said. “I felt good about our plan. We did a nice job executing early. I’m pleased with how we played.”
Hollins said the outcome would have been different had Mary Montgomery scored on its first two possessions.
“If we score some points, it gives our defense energy,” he said. “If we score the first two times — and I put that on me — we’d come out with a win. Now it’s up to the guys who aren’t seniors to push it forward next year.”
Quarterback Andrew Alford, the leading passer in Class 7A, was 17-of-26 passing for 286 yards and all three touchdowns, two of them to Daylyn Upshaw, who took advantage of double coverage on Texas A&M commitment Cam Coleman to grab nine receptions for 174 yards.
“They doubled Cam and when you do that, you single Daylyn,” Nix said. “I don’t think people realize how good he is. You have to pick your poison.”
Golson knew Coleman, Upshaw and Class 7A’s highest-scoring offense would be a supreme test for the best defense in the state’s biggest class. MGM limited Coleman to three catches for 34 yards but couldn’t keep Upshaw from beating man-to-man coverage.
“(Upshaw) is a good player,” Golson said. “We knew he’d be a tough matchup. You have to take away Coleman or he’ll go for 300. We had a lot of zero coverage with little help. We had to take away the run and we had to take away Coleman. It’s disappointing. We felt we could match up with them and we did but they were the better team tonight.”
After Mary Montgomery’s first possession from its 29 to the Red Devils’ 26 was stopped on downs, Upshaw shook free on two slants and gathered in passes of 36 and 33 yards from Alford for a 7-0 lead.
The undaunted Vikings — who had won 18 of their last 19 games coming in — responded with the long clock-gnawing drive from their 19 to a first-and-goal at the 5. But Harris, playing Wildcat quarterback, was stopped on three of the next four plays, including on fourth down when he was met by linebacker Trent Hood and swarmed for a 1-yard loss.
“That was a big stop for sure,” Nix said. “They moved the ball well on us early and we had some big stops.”
Golson knew a rare opportunity to affect the outcome had slipped away.
“The fourth-and-1 was huge,” he said. “Shondell has gotten the ball into the end zone a lot for us. That set’s been good to us. But I think if he had it back, he’d have cut left instead of right. We tell him to stick it up in there and (Hood) made a great play.”
Central built a 21-0 lead on Alford’s 16-yard TD pass to Coleman in the second quarter and a 20-yarder to Upshaw midway through the fourth quarter.
MGM cut the lead to 21-7 on Hollins’ scrambling 9-yard run with 2:56 to go but the Red Devils recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Golson had emphasized in the days leading up to the game it was imperative for the Vikings to get off to a good start but it was the third straight time in the playoffs Mary Montgomery fell behind early and this time there would be no comeback, although the Vikings snared Central in a close game.
“It was a great win,” Nix said. “We were playing a very good football team. They competed. They made some plays. We made a few more plays. In the semifinals, you expect to get pushed.”
The Red Devils beat MGM 58-7 in the first round last year and have twice held the Vikings to the lowest point totals in Golson’s glowing two-year tenure.
Mary Montgomery was held to 82 yards rushing, 100 yards under its average. But the Vikings held Central to 108 yards on the ground, 53 under its average.
Until last year, the Vikings had more losing seasons (51) than any team in Class 7A and Friday night’s loss made 7A Region 2 teams 25-6 against Region 1 since the class started in 2014. But MGM had two of the wins this year and Golson and Hollins expect the Vikings to stay among the state’s elite.
“I think we’ve got a good nucleus coming back and we’ve got a good feeder system and we’re keeping our kids in Semmes,” Golson said. “We’ve got a strong sophomore class and some strong pieces in our junior class. We’ve got the best defense in the state and a lot of returners are coming back.”
Hollins thanked God for the opportunity to lead Mary Montgomery to the semifinals for the first time and an 18-6 record in Golson’s first two seasons.
“It was a blessing to be here and a blessing to be out here with these guys one more time,” he said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to but they’ll be back here again.”