Tigers take 5A crown, James gets MVP
TUSCALOOSA — DaMarcus James took the headlines, Anthony Hardy took the ball and Demopolis took the Class 5A state championship with a 27-14 win over Russellville Thursday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
James grabbed the attention early, rushing for a Super Six record 208 yards in the first half to anchor the Tigers’ ground game. By night’s end, James had claimed the Super Six record for carries in a game (42) and the Class 5A title game record for yards (293), missing the overall mark by just 13 yards.
“You don’t have true appreciation for what he does until you actually see it,” head coach Tom Causey said of James, who completed his playoff run with 1,238 yards and 11 touchdowns on 177 carries.
The teams traded punches for the bulk of the first quarter before Russellville took advantage of Demopolis quarterback Ben Pettus’ lone mistake of the evening. With 1:38 to play in the game’s opening frame, Darrian Graham picked off the first Pettus throw of the contest.
“We were trying to get a match-up one-on-one with our tall receivers,” Pettus said of the misread he made on the route. “It was just a brain fart on me. I was a little mad at myself. But I was just hungry to make up for it.”
The Golden Tigers capitalized on the miscue, stringing together a seven-play, 52-yard drive that ended on the first play of the second quarter when junior running back and Alabama commit Brent Calloway dodged a trio of would-be tacklers and scored from five yards out. Jose Betancourt’s point-after gave RHS the 7-0 lead.
Demopolis answered back quickly, making the most of a 39-yard kickoff return from Jeremy Wallace to push the ball to the Russellville 43. Three plays later, James trotted into the end zone from 13 yards out to put DHS on the board. Spence Overstreet’s extra-point proved true, tying the game at 7 and removing the Tigers’ only deficit of the night.
Demopolis put together a 14-play, 92-yard drive on its next possession, only to watch it stall at the Russellville 7. A defensive stand then forced the Golden Tigers to punt it away with 1:07 to play in the half.
Causey’s team took over at its own 40 and wasted little time in grabbing the advantage. James, who earned title game MVP honors, took the ball on first down, broke six Russellville tackles and galloped 12 yards.
“We didn’t tackle well and DaMarcus James had a lot to do with that,” Russellville head coach Doug Goodwin admitted. “He’s a great player and we knew that coming in. Man, he had a great game.”
The next play, Pettus faked the give to James and went over the top to a streaking Larry Cobb, who pulled the ball in with his finger tips and left the Russellville defense in his rearview en route to a 48-yard touchdown.
“Our philosophy is we’ll go 3-and-a-half (yards), 3-and-a-half, 3-and-a-half and then we’ll go 70-and-a-half,” Causey said. The extra-point was blocked, leaving the Tigers with a 13-7 halftime lead.
Demopolis got a Michael Davis interception early in the third quarter that set up its next touchdown drive. Taking over at their own 29, he Tigers pounded the ball with James on six straight plays before hitting Jeremy Wallace on a 59-yard touchdown pass. The two-point run failed, leaving the Tiger advantage at 19-7.
Russellville clawed its way back into the game on the ensuing possession, going 65 yards on six plays and cutting into the lead with a 2-yard touchdown run by Calloway, who finished his night with 142 yards on 20 carries. Betancourt connected on the ensuing kick, cutting the game to 19-14.
All of the wind seemed to go out of Demopolis’ sails when the Tigers coughed up the following kickoff on their own 30. While Wallace emerged from the pile with the ball, possession was awarded to Russellville. On the second play of the drive, quarterback Joey Howe hit Ryan Romans on the right sideline.
Filling in for a cramping Tremaine Sanders, DHS sophomore interior defensive lineman Neilsen Renner ran Romans down along the boundary and provided the hit that helped Anthony Hardy make the play of the Tigers’ season when he stripped the ball from the receiver’s clutches and sprinted 74 yards for a score.
“Unbelievable,” Causey said of the play. “I’m sitting on the sidelines after that play and I’m thinking of how many Super Six games I’ve seen in which a play like that won a state championship. I still don’t know how he got it. Great players make big plays in big games.”
James punched in the two-point conversion run to leave Demopolis with the 27-14 lead. Despite a blocked punt and a fumble in the fourth quarter, the Tigers made the score stand up.
“We’re here by the grace of God,” Causey told reporters following the game.
“It was a great experience,” senior linebacker Willie Wallace said of the Tigers’ run. “We’re just thanking God. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for God.”
In the elation that followed the win, senior Tre Jones — who missed the last two games of his high school career due to injury — exclaimed to a teammate that the moment was the realization of a dream.
“You dream about this when you’re at U.S. Jones (Elementary School) and you see them boys out there playing,” Jones said.
The win also marked the culmination of a turnaround along the offensive line that helped spark James’ frenzied production in the postseason. The line had its worst performance of the year in the final contest of the regular season against rival Thomasville before stepping up its game in the playoffs.
“Coach Causey set it out straight for us and said if all five of us kept playing and acting like we were acting, playoffs weren’t going to last long,” senior Caleb Garrett said of the conversation that sparked the unit’s progression.
Pettus finished his night going 3-for-4 through the air for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns, a fitting conclusion to a season that started with uncertainty for a player who nearly opted not to suit up as a junior.
“I always had confidence. My parents and my brothers always instilled in me to have confidence,” Pettus said. “(2008 starter Rick Boone) was a great quarterback before me. So that hurt my confidence a little bit because I had big shoes to fill.”
After the post game interviews, Goodwin —who led Demopolis to a 4A title in 2004 — sought out Pettus, his former ball boy.
“If we can’t win it, I’m glad they could,” Goodwin said.
Davis led the team with 10 total tackles and an interception. Hardy added nine stops, an interception and the game-changing takeaway.
James capped his junior season with 2,529 yards and 19 touchdowns on 380 carries for the Tigers.