It was Senior Night at Alabama Christian Academy, but it was a sophomore that stole the show.
Jalen Clark completed both passes he threw for touchdowns, caught four passes for 62 yards and another touchdown and made six tackles from his secondary position to help ACA grab the final playoff berth in 4A Region 2 with a 34-15 victory over Ashford on Friday night.
“We just put all of our energy into this game because we knew this was Senior Night,” Clark said, “so we tried to do everything we could for our seniors. I had their back. That’s all we really wanted to do.”
The Eagles (3-6) won a region game for the second consecutive week and knocked out Ashford for the fourth playoff spot in the region. ACA will close out the regular season next week with a home game against another playoff team, Class 3A Weaver, before traveling to Lincoln for the first round of the 4A playoffs in two weeks.
“The whole season has kind of felt like a punch in the gut,” ACA coach Nate Sanford said. “We know we’re better than we’ve been showing. The whole point of sports is that, OK, it doesn’t always go your way, so now what are you going to do? And this team has never given up. They’ve stuck together.”
The season including an upset loss to Trinity, a heartbreaking overtime defeat to Dale County and allowing a school-record 74 points to Headland in the midst of a five-game losing skid and a rash of injuries. Beating Booker T. Washington last week and Ashford on Friday allowed the Eagles to salvage a disappointing season with a trip to the playoffs.
“It definitely gives us the chance to make up for what was going on,” senior Garrett Cottingham said.
Cottingham was instrumental in the win as well, recording six tackles and reversing a trend in which Ashford quarterback Deshontae Kirkland threatened to take over the game before the Eagles settled in defensively and took command in the second half.
“This is as healthy as we’ve been all year,” Sanford said. “It makes a huge difference. Cottingham is kind of our sparkplug, kind of the heart and soul of the team, and we’ve been missing him. So getting him back last week – he got cleared on Thursday before the game – was a big surprise.
“Just the addition of one guy makes a difference, because now he’s able to set the edge for us. The whole plan was to hem in No. 1 (Kirkland) and keep him from freelancing. He’s a very good athlete and very difficult to bring down.”
ACA closed out a scoreless first quarter with the first big play of the game as Blake Bryant batted Kirkland’s pass and Dawson Locklier intercepted it to put the Eagles at the Yellow Jacket 24-yard line. Three plays into the second quarter, Clark took a pitch from tailback Jackson Hibbard on a reverse and threw to quarterback Reece Solar for a 12-yard touchdown. Solar ran in the two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead.
But Kirkland countered with 121 of his 133 rushing yards in the second quarter, breaking free on a 51-yard run down the sideline to set up his 7-yard sprint up the middle three plays later to trim the deficit to 8-7.
His next three carries would gain just four yards, however, and Ashford punted to Hibbard, whose 16-yard return put ACA at the Ashford 21 with three seconds remaining. Solar closed out the half with a pass to the middle of the end zone, where Clark took the ball away from Jacorey Underwood for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead as time expired.
“It was a huge boost,” Cottingham said. “It was exactly what we needed.”
Clark wasn’t through, however. After Bryant recovered an Ashford fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, Clark took an option pitch from Solar on a reverse, then hit a wide-open Carson Hunt for a 21-yard touchdown and a 28-7 lead.
“We saw last year he was really a special kid when he came in and QBed as a 14-year-old in the roughest part of our season,” Sanford said. “Multiple times during the game (he made big plays), not just that one but the catch on third and long that he basically did by himself, he is a sparkplug.”
Sanford was referring to Clark’s 22-yard gain on a third-and-20 pass in which he dragged several Ashford defenders the final five yards to pick up a first down and set up Solar’s 3-yard scoring run on the next play for a 34-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Kirkland, meanwhile, gained just nine yards in the second half as the Yellow Jackets faded in the winner-take-all battle for a playoff berth.
“We had to game plan for it a lot,” Cottingham said. “We just executed what we were supposed to do, try to keep him in between the tackles. It worked out pretty well.”
Miller McCarthy led ACA with 10 tackles. Alex Harmon had six and Locklier had five.
Solar led the Eagles in rushing with 158 yards on 16 carries.
Noah Jackson led the Ashford defense with seven tackles, followed by Underwood with six and Rashad Richards with five.