To be a special team, you’ve got to be good at special teams.
Tony Amerson returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and Alex Whisenhunt blocked a punt to set up another as St. James took command of the 3A Region 3 race with a dominating 28-0 shutout of Pike Road at ASU Stadium on Friday night.
The win left the Trojans (5-1) as the only unbeaten team in Region 3 at 4-0 with games remaining at Beulah next week, at Prattville Christian and against Southside. Beulah (5-1) and Pike Road (5-2) are tied for second at 3-1.
The game was not only crucial in the region standings, but it was a battle for small-school supremacy in the city as the Trojans faced the upstart program from east Montgomery County in its inaugural season.
“This is deeper than St. James-Trinity,” Amerson said. “This is the new rivalry, so there’s a little extra push and motivation there. They had a lot of barking on social media against us. I just told the guys don’t say anything. They can bark but we’re going to bite on Friday.”
And much of the bite came from a defense that held Pike Road to 123 total yards and just one first down in both the second quarter and third quarter to take command of the game.
“I felt like we won the kicking game tonight,” St. James coach Jimmy Perry said. “We struggled with our kickoffs but we were able to take advantage of their kickoff coverage and the way they protect for the punter. Our kids played well. We ran the ball, we controlled the ball for most of the night and I was very proud of our defense for pitching a shutout against a crew like that with that much speed. Our defense played lights out.”
Amerson, noted for his ability to run the ball between the tackles, gathered in the opening kickoff at the 11-yard line, angled toward the center of the field and ran untouched for the end zone and a 6-0 lead.
“I have been dreaming about taking the kickoff back my whole time at St. James,” Amerson said. “I did not expect it at all. The blocking was so beautiful, I was shocked myself. That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done in this jersey.”
Pike Road, limited on offense as starting quarterback C.J. Paymon recovers from a hyperextended right elbow, found a brief spark from backup Curtis Carter on the Patriots’ opening drive, but the next nine possessions in the game resulted in 55 total yards and four first downs.
“The opening kickoff, that’s seven points on the board, then blocking a punt,” Pike Road coach Patrick Browning said. “We’ve got to get things fixed. We’ve got to continue to get better in all phases. We’re still a young team. We’ve got to learn to overcome adversity when it happens early and just continue to get better in all phases.”
St. James marched 41 yards for its second touchdown three plays into the second quarter, then zapped the air out of the Patriots as Whisenhunt raced in from the left side and blocked Aubrey Grace’s punt. The junior tried to grab the ball, then fell on it at the 10. Three Amerson runs later, the Trojans were in the end zone for a 21-0 lead.
“That was beautiful, too,” Amerson said. “I thought he was going to pick it up and score, but somebody tripped him up. But that was a really good play, too. Coach was telling us the whole week if we’d just execute – his game plan is so good because he’s coached Power Five Division I football – so he knows what to do, we’ve just got to do it ourselves.”
Whisenhunt’s block had a lasting effect. Grace’s next punt was shanked out of bounds after nine yards and Whisenhunt repeated the performance in the third quarter, partially blocking Grace’s punt to trigger a 71-yard drive to the end zone for the game’s final points.
“We worked on it a lot in practice,” Whisenhunt said. “Everybody had a role in this and they had to take the guys who were going to block me out so I could go and block the punt. It was really everybody else. I just got the right to do it.”
Amerson finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.
“Tony’s a great player,” Browning said. “He’s going to have a great college career. He’s worked his tail off to get to where he’s at. He played a good game.”
Carter led Pike Road had 42 yards on 15 carries and Paymon had 36 yards on six carries as Browning must now regroup his team for a crucial region game at Dadeville next week,
“I learned we won’t quit,” Browning said. “Even in the face of adversity, they’re not going to quit. Even though we got down big, we came out in the second half and they continued to fight while we were still trying to figure out a way to manufacture points. Our inability to throw the ball really affected us tonight. They were loading the box and we had a tough time getting it down the field.”
Carter completed 4 of 13 passes for 6 yards before he was replaced in the fourth quarter by Peter Trull, who completed 2 of 5 passes for 13 yards with one interception. Browning hopes Paymon can contribute in the passing game next week.
“He’s going to be week to week,” Browning said. “We’re going to reevaluate him on Monday and see what the doctors say.”