For the third time in four years, Gardendale has ended its football season with a Class 6A playoff loss to Muscle Shoals.

The second-ranked Trojans keep their undefeated record intact with a 30-27 win at Driver Stadium on Friday night, setting a date with No. 3 Pinson Valley next week in the quarterfinals. That game will be played at J.F. Moore Stadium in Muscle Shoals.

The Trojans (12-0) survived their closest contest of the season thanks to a fourth-quarter comeback that was punctuated by Trey Stoddard’s 18-yard, go-ahead field goal with a single second remaining. Gardendale would attempt a hook-and-ladder, but the transfer from hook to lateral was botched near midfield, ending head coach Chad Eads’ second season with the Rockets at 8-4.

Following the game, Eads pointed to a competitive Region 6 schedule that prepared his team for the highly-ranked Trojans.

“I think a lot of it goes back to the region we play in. We see it every week and our kids know they have to prepare to not only see good quarterbacks and good receivers but also a physical run game,” said Eads. “That’s the good part of being in our region; you have to play against this every week.”

Gardendale went blow-for-blow with the only remaining undefeated team in 6A, but in the end, a few big plays were too much to overcome. The Trojans scored four touchdowns:

1) Logan Smothers’ 60-yard run

2) Keevon Hankins’ 69-yard run

3) Smothers’ 68-yard pass to Ty Smith

4) Luke Peoples’ 74-yard pass to Smith

Those first three scores came on back-to-back-to-back offensive snaps from the tail end of the first quarter to the early moments of the second. Hankins’ long run gave Muscle Shoals its first lead at 13-10 and Smothers-to-Smith stretched that lead to 19-10 with 8:12 remaining in the first half.

It was, however, Gardendale that would go to the break with a 20-19 advantage thanks to a pair of late scoring drives. Junior quarterback Will “Goose” Crowder ended a 10-play drive with an impressive 36-yard scramble to the end zone—his longest run of the evening. Senior kicker Landon Erbrick later poked a 29-yard effort through the uprights for a 20-19 lead at intermission.

Erbrick also connected from 40 yards out to extend a first-quarter lead to 10-0. Sophomore running back L.T. Sanders started the contest with a 3-yard touchdown run off right tackle on the game’s opening drive.

In an effort to pull the second-round upset, Gardendale looked to its junior right-hander. Crowder attempted 51 passes, completing 25 of them for 277 yards. Kendale Allen caught seven passes for 120 yards, Stephen Lewis caught seven more for another 84 yards and Bailey Parsons pulled down eight receptions for 64 yards.

“We knew we had to win it with his [Crowder’s] arm and this is the kind of game he excels in… and the receivers made some plays; the same kids who have made plays all year,” said Eads. “We just came up a little bit short. Nobodies’ to blame, I’m proud of our kids, but I wish there would have been more people here to watch it happen.”

Empty seats were aplenty on the home side of Driver Stadium on Friday night, and it did not go unnoticed by those on the sideline.

“I’m not sure that there was at least one person for every kid involved: cheer, band, color guard and rockettes,” said Eads of the home crowd. “When kids go out and put their body on the line for something, you would think we owe it to them to come watch.”

I was the visiting crowd that came alive in the fourth quarter, as Muscle Shoals erased an eight-point deficit and charged on for the win with its starting quarterback stuck on the sideline with an injury. Smothers—a Nebraska commit—went down with an injury late in the second quarter and would not return.

His replacement—sophomore Luke Peoples—led the comeback, hitting Smith on a 74-yard strike and converting the 2-point play with a pass to Markel Ricks for a 27-all tie with 8:03 remaining. Peoples later completed three more passes on the game-winning drive, which ended with Stoddard’s short field goal.

Muscle Shoals also beat Gardendale in the second round of the 2016 playoffs and again in the opening round in 2017; both losses went to former Rockets’ head coach Matt Plunkett.

Erik Harris is the sports editor for The North Jefferson News. He can be reached at sports@njeffersonnews.com

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