Leroy players celebrate with the Blue Map after beating Coosa Christian 28-21 for the 1A state title Thursday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
Leroy’s Ja’Kavien Collins gets upfield for a gain against Coosa Christian Thursday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Collins scored two touchdowns, including the game winner with 2:01 left, in the Bears’ 28-21 win. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
By ARTHUR L. MACK
TUSCALOOSA — For most of the season, the motto of the Leroy Bears has been “Next Man Up.”
Nowhere was that more evident than in the second half of the season, when defensive coordinator Chan Lowe was called up to take over head coaching duties when Jason Massey was deployed with the National Guard.
It was even more evident Thursday evening in the Class 1A state championship game at Bryant-Denny Stadium as sophomore running back Ja’kavien Collins was called on to take over rushing duties when his cousin, Malik Howell, was hampered by an ankle injury.
Collins didn’t disappoint, rushing for 96 yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns — the last coming on a 1-yard plunge with 2:01 left in the game — and the Bears overcame a 14-0 deficit in the first half to win their second straight Class 1A title with a 28-21 triumph over Coosa Christian.
Collins, who also had eight tackles on defense, was named the game’s MVP as Leroy finished 14-0. Quarterback Brayden Huebner, last year’s title-game MVP, was 10-of-20 passing for 117 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 79 yards on 17 carries.
Taylor Crumedy scored on a 2-yard run and also had an 82-yard kickoff return to set up another score. JaQuan Scott had 10 tackles and scored on a 30-yard pass from Huebner.
“The kids faced a lot of adversity this year,” Lowe said. “Not many teams lose their head football coach in the middle of the year to deployment. Hat’s off to coach Massey for going and serving his country and answering that call. At any point and time and any place, (the players) could have folded. But we never missed a beat.”
Massey, whose team has won 27 of its last 28 games, watched the game online and spoke to the players via Face Time after the Bears won their seventh state crown.
“He told us it was a great job, way to fight and way to finish,” Lowe said.
Coosa Christian (9-6) was led by Kanon Wilson, who had 95 yards on 18 carries and a TD. Quarterback John David Justus completed 8 of 15 passes for 51 yards.
The Bears outgained the Conquerors 310 yards to 188.
“Give credit to them, they’re a really good football team,” Coosa Christian coach Mark O’Bryant said. “They did what they had to do to be successful. The flags killed us all year and they showed up again in the second half in some critical situations. Instead of second-and-6, it went to first-and-20. It’s really difficult, especially with the kind of athletes they have.”
Leroy took a 21-14 lead with 11:21 left when it converted a fourth-and-18 with a 30-yard touchdown pass on a tunnel screen to Scott. The score came after the Conquerors appeared to have stopped the Bears after a holding call and two straight incompletions.
Coosa Christian tied it moments later when Huebner’s punt was blocked by Grant Morgan and recovered by Kyler Johnson in the end zone. The play was initially ruled a safety, then overturned on a review.
Collins capped the next drive with his winning touchdown from a yard out.
“Ja’kavien stepped in there. I know he played all of the snaps on defense at linebacker and played on special teams. We drove down and there was never any fear. Our kids thrive on adversity and try to overcome it.”
O’Bryant said his defense was getting tired.
“We were working behind the sticks and when you’re behind the chains, I think it starts to rear its ugly head,” he said.
The Conquerors led 7-0 in the first quarter on Wilson’s 38-yard run. After Leroy’s next possession drive ended with an interception, Wilson scored on a 1-yard run with 11:31 left in the second quarter for a 14-0 lead.
The Bears turned things around with Crumedy’s 82-yard kickoff return to the 1 and Collins scored two plays later from a yard out.
Coosa Christian went three-and-out on its next drive and Leroy got its running game going when Collins ripped off runs of 24 and 16 run. Five plays later, Crumedy scored on a 2-yard run around right end to tie it 14-14.
“When I got the ball, I expected that everybody would crash down but they didn’t,” Crumedy said. “So, I went to the right and reversed back to the left. I saw the hole and I took off.”
Lowe said his players didn’t panic after falling behind 14-0.
“I told our guys, ‘Hey, we were in this same position before,’” Lowe said. “Then, they kick it off and Taylor looks at me and said, ‘Coach, we’re fixing to get a big run on this kickoff.’ He gets it down to the 1 and we score. Then, we get a big stop and we score again, then it’s a new ballgame. When life throws you curves and you’re down 14-0, at any moment they could’ve folded up and quit but that’s never a mindset on our team.”