By Erik Harris
North Jefferson News
Gardendale quarterback Hunter Crook took the snap from center, then fired a lateral pass to his sure-handed tight end Jesse Blackburn, who in return slung the ball back across the field to a wide open Crook. After one juke move the quarterback found himself in the end zone — on the unlikely receiving end of a touchdown pass.
Just like that, the first quarter had come to an end and Gardendale was beating the host Shades Valley 21-7, on their way to a crucial 35-15 victory.
“Crook came wide open so I threw it to him,” said Blackburn. “I had to put a little touch on it.”
It was a fancy touch on a win that kept the Rockets hopes alive for a place in the Class 6A playoffs, and it was also one of four touchdowns that the Rocket field general would have in the game.
“There’s not anymore since of urgency, we’re just finally playing better and that goes to our assistant coaches and players,” said Gardendale head coach Chris Fancher.
The Mounties took an early lead after their first drive went 76 yards on only five plays. Shades Valley quarterback Rashad Louie found Demontez Terry down the right sideline for a 25-yard touchdown pass to put the home team up 7-0.
However, the Mounties offense would be rendered wholly ineffective for the remainder of the game. The Gardendale defense held Shades to only 11 first downs, 274 total yards and 0-for-6 on third down conversions. They were an opportunistic bunch as well, forcing four turnovers on the night. Defensive back Juan Jackson had two interceptions, while linebackers Khaleb Burdette and Justin Fillmore each recovered a fumble.
Crook and his explosive offense turned the turnovers into three touchdowns.
In the first quarter, after Fillmore’s recovery, Crook commanded a seven-play, 19-yard drive that ended with him sneaking it in from one yard out.
He struck again in the second quarter, this time following Jackson’s first interception, with another one-yard sneak. And Crook would put the game away by turning Jackson’s second pick into an eight-yard dash to the goal line, giving the Rockets a 35-9 lead with 11 minutes remaining in the game.
Gardendale receiver Connor Reed also found his way to the end zone. He tied the game at 7-7 early after taking a direct snap from center, looking right and turning it up to ram his way over the goal line from the 3.
As smooth as the Rockets offense was operating all night, they did slip up late in the first half. With only seconds remaining in the half and Gardendale sitting a 28-7 lead, Crook fumbled on a mishandled handoff to running back Jordan Howard. The ball bounced into the end zone where Howard recovered it for a safety.
Still, the Rockets had a 28-9 halftime lead and never showed signs of letting up. Louie improvised another touchdown pass to Terry, this time for 76 yards in the final quarter.
“Hats off to [Shades Valley], they have a fine football team,” said Fancher. “I’m shocked at the score.”
Gardendale totaled nearly 300 yards of offense on the night with 18 first downs. Howard ran the ball 27 times for 164 yards. Crook ran it 15 times compiling 65 yards (without sacks he rushed for over 100 yards). Linebacker Brody Doss led a solid Rocket defense with seven tackles, two of them for loss.
The win improves Gardendale’s region record to 2-3 with a huge matchup looming with region foe Hewitt-Trussville next Friday night, in The North Jefferson News Big Game for next week.
If they defeat the Huskies, the Rockets’ post-season chances greatly improve with only one region game remaining against winless Carver-Birmingham.