By Erik Harris
North Jefferson News
Gardendale brought a fighter’s mentality to their first-round Class 6A playoff matchup with Tuscaloosa County.
But their never-back-down attitude, along with an early 14-0 lead, was not enough to blast them into the second round as they fell to the Wildcats 38-28.
“We probably didn’t play our best at times, but our kids never quit and they battled,” said Gardendale coach Chris Fancher.
The Rockets matched County’s season high in points allowed, when the Wildcats fell to Hoover 28-10. The Wildcats entered the playoffs surrendering an average of only nine points per game.
The Rockets weren’t intimidated by their hosts’ gaudy numbers, though, as they put seven points on the board before the Wildcat band could take their seats. Juan Jackson took the opening kickoff 100 yards to give Gardendale an early 7-0 advantage.
Later in the first quarter, Jesse Blackburn hauled in a 29-yard touchdown catch delivered by receiver Connor Reed, who took the snap in place of quarterback Hunter Crook.. Linebacker Brody Doss got the assist for his fumble recovery at the Wildcat 31 to start the drive.
But then Tuscaloosa County responded to the 14-0 deficit the way an eighth-ranked team should, with 28 unanswered points.
Tylan Perry got County on the board with a 13-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Tyler Gates at the end of the opening quarter.
Then the stout Wildcat defense awoke and forced Gardendale to punt on three straight possessions, two of them three-and-outs.
Each Rocket punt was answered with a County touchdown. The Wildcats offense fed off the defensive energy and refused to be stopped.
Both Ted Colburn and Derrick Burns recorded touchdown rushes, and then Perry reeled in his second touchdown reception of the game with 29-yard effort on the final play of the first half.
“We thought they were going deep and they took the running back on an out route,” said Blackburn. “He ran down to the 5-yard line and just got into the end zone. He [Perry] is a great player.”
Reed made two trips to the end zone in the second half. His first score came on the Rockets’ opening drive, which was capped off by his 5-yard sweep to the goal line. Early in the fourth quarter, after Wildcat receiver Allen Cooks caught a 14-yard touchdown pass, Reed got a bone-crunching block from running back Jordan Howard to propel him 16 yards for the score.
Reed ended the game with the offensive scoring trifecta: a touchdown pass, rush and reception.
With the Rockets trailing 35-28 midway through the fourth, County kicker Emiliano Romirez delivered the knockout punch with a 20-yard field goal.
Gardendale showed a balanced offense with 131 yards rushing and 134 yards passing, for a total of 265 yards on the night.
Howard had 19 rushes for 115 yards to lead the Rockets ground game.
Linebacker Damien Boys led the Gardendale defense with 10 solo tackles and three assists. Jackson added eight solos.
Tuscaloosa County’s offense put up more than 400 yards. Gates completed 17-of-24 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns. Perry accumulated over 160 all-purpose yards with a pair of touchdown receptions.
The Rockets finish the season with a 7-4 record. Tuscaloosa County (9-2) travels to Clay-Chalkville for the second round.