By Josh Bean | For the AHSAA
TUSCALOOSA – Pinson Valley quarterback Zack Pyron knew it was time to order Kool-Aid from the offensive menu.
Pyron’s 52-yard touchdown pass to Alabama commit GaQuincy McKinstry – known by his nickname of “Kool-Aid” – with 9:19 remaining put Pinson ahead for good in Friday night’s 23-13 victory over Spanish Fort in the Class 6A championship game at Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. The 6A battle closed out the 2020 Super 7 State Championships here.
McKinstry made a leaping catch, avoided one tackler and juked past another for the go-ahead TD. Pinson Valley (12-2), led by first-year coach Sam Shade, won its third 6A state title in the last four seasons.
“I told Coach to run that play,” McKinstry said. “I knew it was my time to score. I knew I could score on that play.”
Asked about scoring his first touchdown at Bryant-Denny Stadium, McKinstry replied: “It will not be my last.”
The Super 7 Championships drew 42,301 fans during its three-day run, with 13,583 for Wednesday’s 7A championship game; 13,061 for Thursday’s 1A, 3A and 5A title games; and 15,657 for Friday's 2A, 4A and 6A championships.
Spanish Fort (11-4), coached by Ben Blackmon, fell one win shy of a fifth state title, having taken home Blue Maps in2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Pinson Valley won 6A championships in 2017 and 2018, and Shade won the title in his first season as a head coach while coaching in the stadium where he starred as a defensive back in the 1990s for Alabama.
Pyron won a third straight state championship, having played on Fyffe’s back-to-back 2A championship teams as a freshman and sophomore. He added a third title to his resume, despite struggling against a fast, aggressive Spanish Fort defense before finishing 13-for-21 passing for 166 yards.
Pyron, though, found McKinstry at the right time and later connected with Jaquel Fells for an 11-yard touchdown pass to essentially put the game out of reach, at 23-13, with 2:44 remaining. The Indians’ defense did the rest.
Pinson scored the game’s final 13 points, all in the fourth quarter, and shut out Spanish Fort in the second half.
“We had some ups and downs this year, but we came through it as a family,” Shade said. “I told the guys if we stayed together, we could do anything. We knew if we played the way we could, we could get it done.”
Pinson Valley got off to a strong start. Mike Sharpe scored on a 26-yard run on the Indians’ first possession to cap an efficient six-play, 70-yard drive. Zaylen McCray kicked a 26-yard field to make it 10-0 with 4:27 to go in the opening period.
After struggling offensively through the first quarter, Spanish Fort woke up and delivered a seven-play, 82-yard scoring drive. Johnny Morris had a 31-yard run to get the ball inside the 5, and quarterback Brandon Byrd’s 3-yard touchdown run made it 10-7 with 5:30 to go before halftime.
Pinson Valley – sputtering offensively – then made a big mistake when McCray knelt while catching a punt snap and was ruled down at his own 15. An unsportsmanlike penalty on Pinson added to the mix gave Spanish Fort the ball inside the Indians’ 10.
Three plays later, Byrd scored on a 1-yard TD run to make it 13-10 with 3:49 to go before halftime.
“This one didn’t end the way we wanted it do, but I’m ultra-proud of how they battled,” Blackmon said.
Morris paced Spanish Fort’s offense with 111 rushing yards on 14 carries. The Toros finished with 223 total yards, but 55 came on a pass from Byrd to Aaron Threat with six seconds to go. Oregon commit Christian Burkhalter had 1½ sacks for the Toros.
McKinstry had five catches for 89 yards. Tomas Wesley intercepted a Spanish Fort pass.
Pinson Valley’s James Perkins tallied seven tackles, including two sacks and 5½ tackles for loss. Sharp had 60 yards rushing on 13 carries, and Virginia Tech commit Kenji Christian added 35 yards on eight carries.
AHSAA SUPER 7 STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
At Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa
Wednesday, Dec. 2
CLASS 7A Finals
Thompson (14-0) 29, Auburn (11-2) 28
Thursday, Dec. 3
CLASS 3A Finals
Fyffe (15-0) 21, Montgomery Catholic (12-3) 16
CLASS 1A Finals
Linden (15-0) 32, Pickens County (11-4) 8
CLASS 5A Finals
St. Paul’s Episcopal (15-0) 29, Pleasant Grove (11-3) 21
Friday, Dec. 4
CLASS 4A Finals
Handley (12-1) 35, Gordo (13-2) 20
CLASS 2A Finals
Mars Hill Bible (13-2) 56, Abbeville (12-2) 14
CLASS 6A Finals
Pinson Valley (12-2) 23, Spanish Fort (11-4) 13
TUSCALOOSA – Mars Hill Bible High School coach Darrell Higgins and his Panthers suffered through a winless season just five years ago.
The Panthers (13-2) showed how much things have changed and why the Florence private school has emerged as one of the state’s premiere small-school programs Friday as Mars Hill won its second state championship with a 56-14 win over Abbeville.
Making a third straight trip to the AHSAA Super 7, the Panthers won the 1A title in 2018, finished as 1A runner-up last year and ended the season winning the school’s first 2A football title.
“We set our minds on getting back here and leaving the last game with a win,” Higgins said, referencing last year’s title-game loss. “We wanted to play our best on the big stage. … This is a great accomplishment and something this team really set their mind to.”
Mars Hill’s Justus McDaniel scored four rushing touchdowns, freshman quarterback and MVP Griffin Hanson threw two touchdown passes to Damian Thompson, and Peyton Higgins returned a kickoff 76 yards for a touchdown after having a 96-yard TD run nullified by penalty. The kickoff return in the fourth quarter was the ninth of Higgins’ career and set the AHSAA state record. The previous record (8) was set by Florala’s Steven Reese from 1996-98.
Mars Hill’s defense also did its part limiting Abbeville to 117 yards.
The victory gives Mars Hill 14 wins in its last 15 playoff games, while compiling a 41-4 record during the three years of Super 7 appearances.
Abbeville (12-2), coached by first-year head coach LaBrian Stewart, played in its first state championship game since 1971 and tied the single-season school record for wins. Abbeville star Martavious Glanton, the Jackets quarterback, free safety and kick returner, suffered an injury late in the first half and did not return.
Abbeville supplied the game’s first highlight when Martavious Glanton tackled Mars Hill's Higgins inside the 1 with 1:38 to go in the first quarter and keep the game scoreless.
But the Yellow Jackets’ fumbled it back to the Panthers inside its own 10 a few snaps later, and McDaniel’s 1-yard run on the first play of the second quarter made it 7-0.
Mars Hill took control with two touchdowns in the final 2:52 of the first half for a 20-0 lead, as McDaniel scored on a 1-yard run and Hanson threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Thompson with 33 seconds to go before intermission.
Mars Hill scored three more touchdowns in the third quarter – an 8-yard run by McDaniel, a 41-yard pass from Hanson to Thompson and Hunter Kilpatrick’s 23-yard run – to push the lead to 42-0. McDaniel scored his fourth touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard run for a 49-0 lead.
Abbeville’s Arthur Thomas scored on an 8-yard run midway to make it 49-8 with 5:44 to play, but Higgins returned the ensuing kickoff 76 yards for his touchdown.
“We’ve got some great guys out there blocking for me, and special teams is something we really thrive on,” Peyton Higgins said.
Then, on the next kickoff, Abbeville muffed the short kick and the Yellow Jackets’ Ricavious Dozier picked it up and lateraled to Randy Glanton, who ran 61 yards for a touchdown to make it 56-14.
For Mars Hill, Griffin finished 7-of-12 passing for 222 yards and two touchdowns, and Thompson had four catches for 118 yards and two scores. Higgins added 156 yards rushing on 20 carries and added the kickoff-return touchdown. McDaniel had 1 carries for 75 yards and four touchdowns. Sam Williams anchored the defense with 8½ tackles.
Jayven Anderson led Abbeville with 9½ tackles, including 2½ for a loss, and Dozier had 11 carries for 50 yards. Dozier also ran in the Jackets’ 2-point conversion.
“No matter if they win this game, they’re winners,” Stewart said of his team.
TUSCALOOSA – Score one for throwback football.
Handley (12-1) used a tried-and-true football formula – run the ball and control the clock – to grind out a 35-20 victory over Gordo in the Class 4A championship game.
Senior running back and game MVP Tae Meadows logged 38 carries for 264 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-clinching 1-yard TD run with 1:35 to go. He scored TD runs of 1, 1, 23 and 1 yards.
Handley, coached by Larry Strain, won its third state championship, all since 2011. Gordo (13-2), coached by Ryan Lolley, fell one victory shy of winning its first state title since 2001.
“It came down to a decision of who was going to press harder and be the man,” Strain said. “I felt like our kids stepped up.”
Handley finished with a dominating edge in time of possession, holding the ball for 31:12 to 16:48 for the Green Wave. The strategy kept the ball away from Gordo junior and major college prospect Tanner Bailey.
The Tigers relied on its rugged offensive line with a run-first mentality that produced 340 rushing yards and just 44 through the air. Handley’s defense also shut out Gordo in the second half.
“Our defense played great,” said Handley senior Dylan Brooks, a Tennessee commit who finished with 3½ tackles, 1½ sacks and 2½ tackles for loss today.
Handley built a 21-20 halftime lead.
Gordo’s Bailey opened the scored with a 1-yard run with 1:23 to go in the first quarter, capping a nine-play, 69-yard drive, but a bad snap on the extra point left the score 6-0.
Handley answered with Meadows’ 1-yard run, recovered its second onside kick of the day, and added Ayden Robertson’s 1-yard run for a 14-6 lead with 8:01 to go in the second quarter.
Bailey then hooked up with Hunter Oglen for a 27-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 14-12 after the 2-point pass failed with 6:57 remaining the half.
Meadows scored his second TD on a 2-yard run with 2:52 to go before intermission, capping a 10-play, 69-yard drive to make it 21-12.
Bailey then engineered a seven-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Ben Capps with one second to go before halftime. Bailey’s 2-point pass to Oglen made it 21-20 at the break.
After the teams played to a stalemate in the third quarter, Meadows scored on a 23-yard run with 11:15 to go for a 28-20 lead. He added the game-clinching 1-yarder with 1:35 to go.
“Tae is a good back, man. He’s as good as advertised,” Lolley said. “And I think if you asked him, he’d say that offensive line is really good, too.”
For Gordo, Bailey finished 16-of-36 passing for 222 yards and two touchdowns. J.T. Billups caught six passes for 75 yards, while Capps added four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown and added 8½ tackles on defense. Gordo’s Tyrell Mayberry led the Green Wave defense with 11 tackles and a sack.
For Handley, quarterback Evan Cofield ran 17 times for 75 yards and completed 4-for-11 passes for 35 yards. Brookscaught a 30-yard pass and also returned a kickoff 18 yards. Quadae Lewis led the defense with six tackles.
“Handley has a great team,” Lolley said. “Coach Strain does a great job with his guys. Those guys are very resilient. … It didn’t bounce our way.”