PINSON — Sometimes the ugliest things can turn out to be absolutely beautiful.
Freshman kicker Saul Rios had turned in an ugly night during regulation time of Pinson Valley’s playoff game against old nemesis Hartselle, having missed a field goal and an extra point.
But when it counted the most, Rios sent home an 18-yard field goal that was a knuckle-ball of a kick, just scraping by the lower left corner of the goalpost. That kick won the game for the Indians in overtime, as they defeated the Tigers 23-20 to advance to the second round of the AHSAA Class 5A playoffs.
It was a contest that hinged on the ground game, where the Tribe was at its best when running back Nick Gibson had the ball, while Hartselle excelled on bruising up-the-gut plays from Masio Stover and D’Andre Mack. Indeed, the only big play on offense came early on, when pint-sized sophomore quarterback Jacob Tiffin connected with Mack on a 67-yard touchdown pass for the game’s first score.
Pinson looked at first like it would also rely more on the air attack, as quarterback Brooks Garrett threw 13 passes in the first period. Two of them were good for touchdowns: one to Spencer Underwood that tied the game at 7-7, and another after a Tiger field goal from Garrett to Desmond Williams for three yards with 46.4 seconds left in the opening frame. (Rios missed the extra point kick.)
After trading interceptions to start the second quarter, both teams largely went back into their comfort zones on the ground. Hartselle took back the lead with 4:44 left in the first half after starting a drive at midfield. It took 10 running plays to score, which came on a 7-yard throw from Tiffin to Tobias Mitchell. The Tigers took a 17-13 lead into the locker rooms.
The third quarter looked like something out of a fantasy by the late Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. Each team had just one drive, and every play but one was a run.
After a Juray Smith kickoff return brought the ball to the Hartselle 48, Gibson took the ball nine times. But he couldn’t punch it in on third down and goal from the 5-yard line, and Rios’ 21-yard field goal attempt was shanked.
Hartselle (8-3) then took over and ran 15 straight rushing plays, stalling out at the Indians 23 as the third quarter ended. Kicker Jack Waterman opened the fourth with a 41-yard field goal that put the visitors back up by a touchdown.
The Tribe struggled to catch up in the fourth, as three straight short drives went three-and-out, an interception, and four-and-over on downs. But with 2:57 left in regulation play, Smith intercepted a Tiffin pass to put Pinson in business on their own 41.
Garrett then fired a 35-yard strike to Underwood, followed by a short Gibson run. One second down and three at the Tiger 17, Gibson scored with a second-effort run, stretching out just over the goal line for the touchdown.
Rios’ extra point tied the game. The teams swapped possessions to run out the period.
Overtime should have favored Hartselle on paper, with their strong running game and a kicker with two field goals so far. But in the first drive of the overtime period, the Tigers tried two passes that came up short, and Waterman’s 22-yard field goal sailed wide left.
In their portion of the extra period, the Indians simply gave the ball to Gibson three straight plays to get the ball to the 1-yard line, and Rios’ field goal kick was just good enough.
“I was so excited. I just wanted to cry,” Rios about how he was mobbed by teammates and fans after the game.
For coach Matt Glover, it was a huge relief.
“It was ugly, wasn’t it?” Glover joked about the winning field goal. “We’ve lost some games like that, so it’s about time we won one.”
Glover made some adjustments on defense at intermission. “We worked on gap responsibility, and did a beter job of that in the second half,” he said.
Gibson finished the game with 143 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. Garrett was 11-for-23 passing with one interception and 148 yards; both of the picks were by Hartselle’s Zeth Malcom. Tribe linebacker Nathan Cunningham had three tackles for loss, including two in a row.
Finally, Valley has defeated Hartselle in the playoffs for the first time in three meetings since the turn of the century — something that had been on the mind of the Indians all week, according to Gibson.
“Before we got ready to come out here. our coaches showed us the film [from the two losses], and asked us, “Do you all want to lose like that again or do you want to step it up?’ And we did,” Gibson said.
The Indians (7-2) move on to face McAdory in McCalla for the second round next Friday.