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Golden Tigers win first six games at 7-on-7 before falling to W.S. Neal in semifinals

RUSSELLVILLE - On a sweltering day at Golden Tiger Stadium, Mark Heaton got the opportunity to see how his new-look Russellville football team would respond in the heat of battle.

And it wasn’t just the mid-90s temps or the 100-plus-degree heat index that tested the Golden Tigers on Friday at their annual Northwest Alabama 7-on-7 Camp; five of their seven games were decided by three points or less, and four came down to the very last play.

Russellville answered the bell all day long, going a perfect 5-0 in pool play to earn the top seed for the single-elimination tournament and then slipping by West Morgan 20-18 in the quarterfinals. The Golden Tigers’ run ended in the tournament semifinals when W.S. Neal converted a critical third-and-eight to salt away a 16-14 win and earn a date with Deshler in the championship game.

“Pretty much every game we played today was down to the wire, and that’s good for us,” said Heaton, whose team finished the day 6-1 overall. “Our guys were fighting and battling and competing all day. We had so many different kids step up and make big plays when we needed them.

“We go 6-1, and [the one loss] comes down to a third-down play where we’re fighting and scrapping to make a play on the ball, but their kid just makes a nice catch. We’re inches away from breaking up that pass and maybe getting a chance to play for a championship. The goal is to keep working and keep progressing so that the next time we’re in that situation, instead of almost getting there we go ahead and make that play and finish the job.”

Freshman Luke Barnwell took every snap at quarterback on Friday, leading the Golden Tiger offense to 15 touchdowns in 28 possessions. Barnwell attempted exactly 100 passes in seven games, completing 63 of them for a total of 779 yards and 15 touchdowns with four interceptions. [Games lasted 20 minutes and were played on a 40-yard field with first-down markers at the 25 and the 10 and three downs to either move the sticks or reach the end zone.]

“Luke has made tremendous progress since the spring and the start of the summer,” said Heaton, who had only one starting quarterback (2017 graduate Payton Nichols) in his first three years as Russellville’s head coach. “We’ve been developing him in the vertical passing game, and he threw some deep balls today with accuracy. He also had a few where he didn’t quite have the right touch. He’s still progressing as far as knowing when to turn it loose right when a guy is coming out of his break and when to be a little more patient and let things develop a little bit.

“It’s just a matter of confidence with him and continuing to get those reps. But he’s come a long way.”

Barnwell and dual-threat junior Devin Buckhalter have been splitting snaps at quarterback all summer. Buckhalter played exclusively at receiver on Friday (catching a team-best 18 passes for 242 yards and four touchdowns), but Heaton said that doesn’t mean his days at quarterback are done.

“Not at all,” Heaton said. “Devin is still gonna get a ton of snaps at quarterback. Today was more about progressing in the area where it’s hardest to progress—playing a ninth-grade quarterback in [Class] 5A and competing at a state-championship level.

“We know what Devin can do. In a lot of these competitions, it’s been about getting Luke as many snaps and as much experience as possible. I discussed that with Devin the other day. I told him he was gonna have to be patient, and he’s done that. I’m so proud of him.”

Russellville’s offense is bound to look different with the dynamic Buckhalter (a 5’11, 170-pound athlete who runs a 4.68 forty) taking snaps than it does with Barnwell (who’s more of a pure pocket passer) at the helm. Heaton acknowledged as much on Friday.

“Today was good because we got a chance to work on our passing game with Luke at quarterback,” Heaton said. “When we get to the fall and we start incorporating some of the stuff we’ll do with Devin back there, that picture is going to look totally different than the picture you saw out here today.”

In the meantime, Buckhalter—blessed with a 36-inch vertical, great body control and strong hands—continues to demonstrate his play-making skills at outside receiver. In Friday morning’s first game against West Morgan, he roasted the Rebels for 58 yards on four receptions, including a leaping grab for a 19-yard touchdown on a third-and-nine play. Buckhalter saved his best performance for Friday's final game, catching four passes for 71 yards and two scores in the semifinal loss to W.S. Neal.

As good as he was, Buckhalter might not have been the most impressive Russellville receiver on Friday. Logan Jones (a 5’9, 170-pound senior) showed off some breath-taking after-the-catch moves and outstanding elusiveness, scoring a team-best seven touchdowns (including a pair of 40-yard bombs in the quarterfinal win over West Morgan) in seven games. Jones finished the day with 13 catches for 193 yards—115 of which came in the two tournament games.

“Logan is exciting,” Heaton said. “He’s got such great hands, and his routes are getting cleaner. When you start talking about him and Devin at receiver with Robert [Hamilton] and Bernard [Phinizee] and some of those younger guys like Rowe Gallagher and Cole Barnett—that’s really tough to defend.”

Hamilton (a 5’8, 153-pound senior with 4.5 speed in the forty) played almost exclusively on defense last season as Russellville’s top cover corner, but Heaton has been pleased with his progress at receiver. Hamilton caught 12 passes on Friday for 129 yards and a touchdown. Phinizee (another senior and one of just three returning starters on offense, along with Jones and senior left guard John David Palmer) added nine catches for 103 yards and a score.

Other receivers who contributed on Friday were senior Kevin Partrich (four catches, 51 yards), juniors Wylie Boyd (two catches, 22 yards) and Theran Pounders (two catches, 15 yards, one touchdown), and freshmen Rowe Gallagher (two catches, 17 yards, one touchdown) and Cole Barnett (one catch, seven yards).

Defensively, the Golden Tigers allowed only 12 touchdowns in 28 possessions—an outstanding rate for 7-on-7 football. Pounders, Partrich, Buckhalter and Jones each had one interception.

With only one event (an OTA at Haleyville High School on July 24) remaining on the summer schedule, Heaton said he’s pleased with how the Golden Tigers have progressed heading into his fourth fall camp at Russellville, which will kick off on August 7.

“We’ve had a really good summer,” he said. “As far as adhering to our standard for how we wanna do things on the field and off the field, we’re doing that better than we ever have. The trash talk on the field has been cut down. Our guys are working hard. They’re here, and they’re here on time. I love the leadership and the attitude we’re getting from our older guys. Whether we make a mistake or somebody makes a big play, our guys are encouraging each other. They’re not degrading each other.

“If we’ll keep battling for each other and getting better every day, I believe this group will have an opportunity to do some good things.”

Friday’s camp provided an extensive look at the Golden Tiger offense without running back Zaye Boyd, who rushed for 1,401 yards and scored 25 total touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016. Boyd is no longer enrolled at Russellville and has transferred to Lawrence County High School.

Here’s a game-by-game breakdown of Friday’s action [remember that teams were awarded six points for a touchdown, with the option of going for a one-point conversion from the 5-yard line or a two-point conversion from the 10-yard line; three points for an interception; and two points for forcing a turnover on downs]:

Russellville 23 West Morgan 11

The Golden Tigers jumped out to a 23-0 lead in their first pool-play game of the day and cruised past the Class 3A Rebels.

Luke Barnwell completed 15-of-22 passes for 139 yards and three touchdowns—one each to Devin Buckhalter, Logan Jones and Rowe Gallagher. Buckhalter caught four passes for 58 yards, and Robert Hamilton had five catches for 44 yards.

Russellville 16 Crossville 15

The Golden Tigers fell behind 9-0 in their second pool-play game before reeling off 16 unanswered points and then stopping a potentially game-tying point-after try in the final seconds to hold on and edge Class 5A Crossville.

Luke Barnwell threw for 92 yards and two touchdowns on 9-for-11 passing, hooking up with Robert Hamilton three times for 27 yards and Devin Buckhalter twice for 30 yards. Logan Jones and Theran Pounders each had an eight-yard touchdown reception.

Russellville 18 W.S. Neal 16

Linebacker Nate Green broke up a pass at the goal line to deny a two-point conversion attempt by W.S. Neal on the final play of the game, giving the Golden Tigers a tight win over the Class 4A Eagles in pool play.

Russellville jumped out to an early 9-0 lead on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Luke Barnwell to Bernard Phinizee and an interception by junior corner Theran Pounders. W.S. Neal got a stop and a score to get within a point at 9-8, but Barnwell responded with a 14-yard touchdown toss to Devin Buckhalter with 8:15 remaining.

An interception by Kevin Partrich stretched Russellville’s lead to 18-8 before the Eagles mounted a late rally that fell two points short.

Barnwell finished 10-for-17 for 105 yards and two touchdowns—one each to Phinizee (four catches, 40 yards) and Buckhalter (three catches, 28 yards).

Russellville 21 Sheffield 13

The Class 2A Bulldogs were leading 13-12 with less than six minutes remaining when Russellville receiver Robert Hamilton beat double-coverage down the left hash and hauled in a 36-yard strike from Luke Barnwell for the decisive touchdown.

Barnwell found Devin Buckhalter on a fade route for the point after, and then senior linebacker Connor Stults broke up a third-down pass by Sheffield to secure one final stop and seal the win.

Barnwell completed 7-of-12 passes for 123 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Hamilton caught three passes for 46 yards, and Logan Jones had a 24-yard touchdown reception. Devin Buckhalter caught one pass for 16 yards and also had an early interception.

Russellville 18 Central-Florence 15

The Golden Tigers were leading the Class 4A Wildcats by just three points in their final pool-play game when Luke Barnwell found Logan Jones for a 19-yard touchdown with a little more than three minutes remaining to seal the win.

Barnwell was sharp, completing 9-of-12 attempts for 105 yards and two scores. Jones caught both touchdown passes and finished with three receptions for 28 yards. Devin Buckhalter also caught three passes for 28 yards.

Russellville 20 West Morgan 18

Logan Jones got behind the Rebel defense twice for a pair of 40-yard touchdowns, the last of which put the Golden Tigers ahead to stay with less than three minutes remaining in their quarterfinal win.

Jones finished with four catches for 85 yards and also came up with an interception on defense. Luke Barnwell was 7-for-13 for 114 yards and two touchdowns.

W.S. Neal 16 Russellville 14

Trailing by eight with less than two minutes remaining, the Golden Tigers got a 40-yard touchdown pass from Luke Barnwell to Devin Buckhalter to cut the lead to 16-14. The two couldn’t connect on the ensuing two-point try, however, and W.S. Neal converted a critical third-and-eight on a 12-yard completion in the final half-minute to seal the semifinal win.

Barnwell threw for 101 yards and two touchdowns on 6-for-13 passing. Buckhalter had a big game, hauling in both touchdowns and finishing with four catches for 71 yards. Logan Jones added a 30-yard reception.

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