Both teams had jogged off McLemore Field at halftime with St. James clinging to a 14-7 lead over Montgomery Academy in the region opener for both teams on Friday.
The last two off the field were enjoying a few moments of thoughtful reflection as Trojan running back Austin Gavin took in a few choice comments from assistant coach Larry Ware, a former running back who earned “Mr. Football” honors and knew too well the challenges a running back faces every Friday night.
“He really broke it down, put it in a real life perspective,” Gavin said. “It gets hard. My knee was hurting but that’s an obstacle I have to overcome. Sometimes it gets hard, but you have to stay calm and collected at times like that.”
Gavin returned to the field and ran for another touchdown in the third quarter to finish off the Eagles in a 26-7 win. The senior rushed for a career-high 238 yards on 33 carries, scoring on a 64-yard run in the first quarter to break a scoreless tie and adding a 16-yard touchdown run in the final seconds of the third quarter.
At that point, Alex Whisenhunt filled in for Gavin and contributed 138 yards on 21 carries, all in the final three quarters. He scored on a 24-yard burst up the middle early in the second quarter and took over for Gavin in the fourth quarter.
“In practice, it’s usually me and Alex alternating like this,” Gavin said, “but when I went down, Alex really stepped up. I appreciate him and I appreciate my line. Alex came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know how hard that spot (running back) was.’ He said he was real gassed, but I’m so happy he stepped up tonight.”
The one-two punch was too much for the Eagles. When Gavin went to the sideline at times over the final three quarters, a refreshed Whisenhunt was just as effective against the Eagles’ defense.
“That’s what you’ve got to have,” St. James coach Jimmy Perry said. “They kind of zeroed in on 3 (Gavin) and got their eyes off of 4 (Whisenhunt) and then 4 came in and they had to look at him for a while and 3 came back and did his thing. We just had a good one-two punch and the defense played lights out and gave us some turnovers on (Montgomery Academy’s) side of the field.”
The game would turn, as it so often does, on two huge plays in the first half. With 4:15 remaining in the first half, Montgomery Academy senior linebacker Hilsman James, who missed virtually all of last season with a knee injury, reinjured his right knee and missed the remainder of the game, leaving the Eagles without one of its most inspiring leaders.
“That was a blow,” Montgomery Academy coach Gary Nelson said. “Losing your middle linebacker in the first quarter against a team that runs what they run, it’s hard to recover. It deflated us. Honestly, I don’t know if I did the best job after that. It kind of shook me. He’s such an important piece of what we do.”
Although the Trojans seemed to have the upper hand throughout much of the first half, the Eagles appeared to pull even at 14-14 on an 84-yard Jamal Cooper punt return for a touchdown with 5:58 remaining in the first half, only to have an official penalize the Montgomery Academy bench for celebrating and leaving the bench area as Cooper covered the final 20 yards.
“I’m not going to comment on officials,” Nelson said. “We encourage our kids to be involved in the game and we want our sideline to be excited when things go well. I felt like the guys on our sideline were responding with great energy to really the first big play we had in the game and the official thought that excitement went overboard. It was an unfortunate call.”
It was one of two penalties for leaving the sideline area assessed by officials in the game, including one against St. James that wiped out a long run by Gavin early in the third quarter. The second penalty wasn’t as costly since Whisenhunt ran 53 yards for a Trojan touchdown on the next play, but the penalty on Cooper’s punt return killed the Eagles’ momentum and further deflated a team still reeling from James’ injury.
“That was huge,” Perry said. “We didn’t have but nine guys on the field and that was a coaching error that won’t happen again, I promise you.”
After the penalty was assessed, Montgomery Academy had the ball on the St. James 41, but were forced to punt three plays later as the Trojans slammed the door on the Eagle offense.
“When we came back in the huddle, we just talked about energy,” Gavin said. “We just stayed calm and collected. Coach tells us to focus on the next play. We flushed the last play down the drain and focused on the next play and came out with the win.”
The two teams were virtually even in time of possession in the first quarter (6:01 to 5:59) but the disparity was obvious over the final three quarters as St. James owned the ball for 27:36 of the final 36 minutes.
“We haven’t had a lot of success defending them,” Nelson pointed out. “We’ve never defended them well. They’re a matchup nightmare for us. They’re big and strong and they get in there and kind of push on you. Does that indicate that we’re not as good defensively as we thought? I don’t know. I know losing your ‘mike’ linebacker on the second drive (affects you). I don’t know if we were lined up right most of the game. We bump our ‘sam’ over there, who hasn’t played any ‘mike,’ and played a 10th grader (at ‘sam’) who’s actually been practicing at safety this week.”
The Eagles struggled to find any consistency on offense. Britton Kohn, who had looked impressive for much of the Eagles’ first three games, couldn’t find any rhythm against St. James, completing just 8 of 19 passes for 66 yards while throwing three interceptions.
“I thought we just did a good job of reading our keys and not putting our eyes in places they didn’t need to be,” Perry said. “Once we did that, we were in good shape.”
The Trojans, meanwhile, converted 9 of 15 third-down opportunities, with two of those failed opportunities coming on the final play of their respective halves. Six of the nine conversions were on running plays.
“They’ve got two guys and a big tight end that can roll you off the ball a little bit and a really well coached, big offensive line,” Nelson said. “They’re heavy. We’re bigger this year than we’ve been in three or four years but we’re not as big as them.”
After Gavin’s career night, the senior was just thankful for the halftime advice from his coach.
“I just give all the credit to my line and my teammates,” he said. “We knew that we were in for a dogfight, but we needed to stay calm and collected. I just think we came together as a team when it got rough in the second half and just did business.”
Mac Main led the MA defense with 10 tackles. William Robertson had nine tackles, Jack Anzalone had nine tackles and forced a fumble, Jackson Kelly had eight tackles and Thomas Kirkham had six tackles.
For St. James (4-0), the 3A Region 3 win was huge as the Trojans remain one of only two unbeaten teams in the region. Montgomery Academy (2-2) is one of four 1-1 teams chasing the two front runners for one of the four playoff spots.
“I think they’re one of the better teams in our region,” Perry said, “so it’ll pay great dividends at the end of the season.”
The Trojans travel to Dadeville for a region game next week, while the
Both teams are on the road in region play next Friday, with the Trojans traveling to Dadeville and Montgomery Academy facing Prattville Christian.