GARDENDALE — It was a long time coming — 22 years, to be exact.
The last time that Gardendale had beaten Mountain Brook, or any of the over-the-mountain powerhouse teams for that matter, was 1991.
That losing streak ended Thursday night, as the Rockets came from behind to defeat the 10th-ranked Spartans 14-9.
The Rockets overcame an old-fashioned, run-it-up-the-gut offensive effort by Mountain Brook in the first half. Running back Will Bromberg was a jewel for the visitors, as he rushed 30 times for 151 yards to account for all but 14 of his team’s total on the ground. Most of his yardage came as he pounded right into the heart of the Rockets’ defensive line.
But even so, the Spartans had a difficult time putting points on the scoreboard. A marathon drive that began on their own 26 bogged down 16 plays later, when the Rockets held on third down and seven at the 9-yard line to force a 26-yard field goal by Tre Fletcher with 9:30 left in the first half.
Mountain Brook then capitalized on Gardendale’s only turnover of the night, on the closest thing to a trick play that coach Matt Plunkett pulled out of his playbook. Running back/safety Juan Jackson lined up at quarterback, but threw in the wrong direction and right into the hands of Buddy Pell for an interception.
“He got confused and ran the wrong play. I take blame for that — I should’ve called a time out right there and fixed it,” Plunkett said.
Bromberg ran five straight gains for 44 yards, with Pell smashing through the line for one yard and the touchdown. Smith’s extra point kick was no good, though, giving the Spartans a 9-0 lead going into halftime.
Things turned around for the home team after intermission, and Jackson made amends for his errant pass. There weren’t any big adjustments made by Plunkett and his staff, not even any paint-peeling tirades in the locker room.
“We said, ‘Guys, we’ve asked you to be men, and you’re either going to handle this like someone that’s not ready to beat an over-the-mountain school, or you’re going to grow up like men.’ And that’s really the challenge we gave them,” Plunkett said. “Our kids made that decision. We didn’t really change anything. Our kids never doubted they were going to win this football game.”
After holding Mountain Brook on the first drive of the second half, the Rockets took the ball at their own 20, and cranked up the ground game for themselves. Jackson was a large part of that, but quarterback Hunter Crook also got into the action on a crucial series of downs in Spartan territory.
After a holding penalty put the Rockets back to second and 20 from the 40, Crook connected on consecutive passes to Tye Dunklin and Austin Hicks, then got the last yard and a half on a quarterback sneak.
Four plays later, Hicks swept around right end from the 5-yard line for a touchdown.
Gardendale held Mountain Brook again on the next possession, and took the ball over in Spartan territory after Jackson ran a punt back 35 yards to the opponents’ 41.
Jackson then ran the last four carries of the drive, finishing with a 1-yard charge for the go-ahead score with 10:40 left in the game.
The speedy junior then made his presence known on the Spartans’ subsequent drive, when he slammed wide receiver Hunter Branch with a bone-jarring tackle. Branch still made the catch and the first down, but three plays later he dropped an easy third-down catch that ended the drive.
Mountain Brook had one last chance late in the game, with a final drive that began at their own 25. They marched all the way down to the Rocket 9, helped by a defensive holding penalty along the way. But on fourth down and three at the 10, Jacob Carroll’s pass was intercepted by Jay Washington with 59 seconds left. It was Mountain Brook’s only turnover of the game, but it was the one that doomed their comeback chances.
“They had me staying in the flats, but at the end the coaches moved me up to free safety to cover the pass to the end zone,” Washington said.
Jackson finished the night with 63 yards on 19 carries. He was one yard behind Crook, who ran nine times; he also was 7-for-8 in passing for 69 yards.
Mountain Brook (0-3, 0-2 region) led the overall offense with 314 yards compared to 237 for Gardendale (3-0, 2-0 region). The Spartans also gained 19 first downs, and the Rockets had 16.
Defensively, D.J. Lewis had six tackles and four assists, Santez Blevins had six tackles and three assists, and Tanner Clayton also had six tackles.
It’s an auspicious beginning for new Gardendale coach Matt Plunkett, who was won his first three games. But it gets tougher next week as they travel to Vestavia Hills, where coaching legend Buddy Anderson won his 300th game Thursday night with a 30-8 thrashing of Huffman.
“Vestavia and Buddy Anderson football is as smash-mouth as it gets,” Plunkett said. “We’re going to have a huge challenge next week.”