After failing to score an offensive touchdown in losses to American Christian Academy and Andalusia, Trinity players had heard the talk.
Would Alabama Christian unseat Catholic as the region champion? Would Dale County return to the standard it showed in 2016 and challenge for the title?
And what about Trinity? No one was talking about Trinity. The Wildcats had not won a region opener since beating Leeds in 2013.
“We knew that people were looking down on us, thinking we were not good, but we knew we had a team that could come out and compete this year,” said Wildcat senior Thomas Hargrove. “It’s a big game to win and to start off region play with a win.”
“I think we could all feel that,” Trinity quarterback John David Bonner said, “but being the underdog, somebody has to step up.”
The Wildcats stepped up with play after play, turning back threat after threat to snap a four-game losing streak in region openers and stun Alabama Christian Academy 20-6 at Ragsdale-Boykin Field on Friday night.
“We’ve been playing good teams and good defenses,” said Hargrove, a linebacker who led the defensive effort with 11 tackles. “We knew our time would come where we would show what we could do.”
What made the win more unlikely was the status of starting quarterback Rob Chandler, who came out and played one play, then left the game with a shoulder injury that kept him out of practice all week. That put the offense in the hands of Bonner, a sophomore whose first significant varsity action came last week at Andalusia.
“To Rob’s credit, he’s coached him along the way, the last eight to 10 days,” Trinity coach Barry Loyal said. “But we’ve never wavered. We played two really good football teams and (ACA) is a really good football team. I thought John David’s performance is really an indicator of those older guys not panicking when they knew it was going to be hard for Rob to go. So I think that gave John David some confidence.”
Bonner completed 7 of 12 passes for 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“Rob didn’t practice all week and I had to step up and do something with it,” Bonner said, “so I decided to step up and be a leader tonight and get something done.”
But while everything seemed to go right for the Wildcats (1-2), everything went wrong for the Eagles (1-2). Alabama Christian would have one possession that was stopped by Trinity in the first half and a fairly normal fourth quarter but the rest of the game was anything but routine. ACA quarterback Reece Solar fumbled on the first possession, threw an interception on the third and turned the ball over on downs on the Trinity 7.
In the third quarter, ACA’s first possession ended with a punt blocked and the next with a punt return for a touchdown, turning the game into an insurmountable 21-0 deficit.
“I don’t remember a game like this before,” Alabama Christian coach Nate Sanford said. “It starts and ends with the head coach. It’s something that we have to get fixed. We do punt every single day in practice. That was a big shock, both of those things.”
Trinity scored its first offensive touchdown of the season two plays after Solar’s pass to Trinity defensive back James Davis put the Wildcats in business at the Trinity 41. Bonner’s second-down pass to the right sideline found Jack Singletary as ACA defensive back Carson Hunt made a play for the ball, leaving Singletary alone on a 56-yard sprint to the end zone.
“I rolled out and Jack Singletary just ran inside and cut back out and their safety wasn’t looking so I just threw it right over the top,” Bonner said.
Tate Holley’s block of a Solar punt set up another Bonner-to-Singletary pass for 5 yards and a 14-0 lead.
“Coach (Jarrod) Cook and Coach Sham (Jon Shamburger) worked on that punt block for a long time,” Loyal said. “We worked on it every day. That’s a credit to them, a credit to their design on that block.”
The Wildcats finished off the Eagles with a 51-yard punt return for a touchdown by Nolan Sasser for a 21-0 lead with 3:10 left in the third quarter.
ACA’s next possession found the end zone on a 6-yard run by Jackson Hibbard to trim the deficit to 21-6, but Trinity took more than two minutes off the clock before punting back and the Eagles’ next drive consumed almost five minutes before turning the ball over on downs.
For the second consecutive week, the Eagles suffered a huge setback with the loss of a top player. A week after linebacker Garrett Cottingham was sidelined, left tackle Jackson Duke left the game with a shin injury, leaving ACA without two of its best players and, more importantly, two of its top leaders.
“We don’t want to take anything away from them,” Sanford said. “They held us to six points, played solid ball on defense and did enough on offense to win. We shot ourselves in the foot over and over and over. When you’re dealing with the psyche of a 16-year-old kid and you do that to yourself, it’s hard to picture yourself not doing that and being successful.”
ACA returns home next week to play Catholic in a crucial region game, while Trinity travels to Headland for a region matchup.