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Ground game powers Tharptown to critical region win

A year ago, in head coach Kevin Lacey’s first season at the helm, Tharptown finished fifth in Class 1A, Region 8, missing out on what would have been the program’s first-ever playoff berth by one game.

The Wildcats are determined not to suffer the same fate in 2017.

“That’s the goal,” Lacey said of reaching the postseason. “We hit on it all the time. We talk about it a lot. We’ve drilled it in their heads.”

With that in mind, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Tharptown’s 38-28 win at Shoals Christian Friday in the Region 8 opener for both teams. Shoals earned the region’s fourth and final playoff spot last season, finishing one game ahead of the Wildcats.

“This was a huge win for us,” Lacey said on Sunday afternoon. “We were one win away [from the playoffs] last year, and we struggled to find it and we didn’t find it. So this was a big win for us.”

Tharptown (1-2 overall, 1-0 in region play) still has five region games to go, of course, starting with this Friday’s visit from reigning region champion Hackleburg (1-1, 0-0). The Wildcats (whose two region wins last season came against Waterloo and Vina) have merely taken the first step toward becoming a playoff team, but Friday’s impressive performance at Shoals suggests that their ultimate goal is certainly within reach.

“I thought we played really well,” said Lacey, whose team put up 406 yards of total offense against the Flame and topped the 30-point mark for the first time since a 64-34 rout of Alabama School for the Deaf in the final game of the 2013 season. “The offensive line did really well. The running backs had holes all night. Defensively, we had a good game plan. Our defensive coaches came up with a good plan, and our guys did well filling gaps and making tackles. I was pleased with how we played on both sides of the ball.”

Senior tailback Payton Price and junior fullback K.J. Hamilton carried the load on offense, combining to rush for 339 yards and five touchdowns. Price put up 220 yards and three scores, and Hamilton added 119 yards rushing and found the end zone twice.

“It was pretty much run it ‘til they stop it,” Lacey said. “We only threw the ball a very few times. We knew it was gonna be a run-heavy game on both ends. They run it a lot, and we run it a lot. We knew we had to score with them.”

Lacey praised the efforts of his offensive line, which includes sophomore Ruben Alfaro at center, junior Evan Franks and sophomore Gunner Lane at guard, and seniors Frank Miguel and Skylar Fields at tackle.

“They were finding the guys they needed to block and getting on them,” Lacey said. “Most of the time, when we can get Payton and K.J. in one-on-one situations, they’re good at making people miss.”

So, for that matter, is Shoals Christian tailback Christian Martin, a speedy senior who had scored on touchdown runs of 45 and 64 yards and also returned a kickoff 88 yards to the house in Shoals Christian’s season-opening loss to Collinwood the previous week. Needless to say, Martin—and, to a lesser degree, fullback Taylor Spinks—was the focal point of Tharptown’s defensive game plan heading into Friday.

“He was,” Lacey said of Martin, who burned the Wildcats for long touchdown runs of 61 and 85 yards in last year’s 41-13 win by the Flame. “The first three touches he had last year against us, nobody could catch him. We know how good he is. Our defensive coaches really prepared our guys every day this week. We spent a lot of time on him. They have a good fullback, too, and we spent a lot of time on both of those guys.

“Our coaches did a really good job, and our guys responded well.”

Lacey credited Price, who recorded a team-high eight tackles, and fellow outside linebacker Trent Risley, another senior who had six tackles, with helping minimize Martin’s big-play opportunities.

“The main thing is just to keep him contained,” Lacey said. “Defensively, we’ve got some pretty quick outside guys ourselves, and they did a great job of keeping him contained and setting the edge. He got the edge on us one time, and he scored. But that’s better than last year, when the first three times he touched it, he was gone.

“Our outside guys did a good job of turning him in and keeping him inside, and when we did turn him in we had other guys filling the gaps and tackling.”

Fields, who starts at middle linebacker, also had six tackles Friday night. Alfaro, Dakota Palmer and defensive back Luis Macias added five tackles apiece. Macias had a big night in the kicking game as well, drilling three extra points and a 35-yard field goal.

After dropping their first two games of the season to county rivals Phil Campbell and Red Bay by a combined margin of 107-13, the Wildcats withstood the ebb and flow of a back-and-forth affair with Shoals Christian and then finished strong to claim a crucial region win.

“We didn’t get down on ourselves at any point in the game,” Lacey said. “That’s what I’m most proud of. If we don’t get down on ourselves, we can put up some points. The last couple of games against Phil Campbell and Red Bay, they got on us quick and we got down a little. We stopped getting on our blocks and hitting our holes. But the other night I thought we were in it the whole game.”

Region game number two promises to be tougher still. Hackleburg has a remarkable record of 30-2 in region play over the past five seasons, and head coach Rod Hudson and the Panthers are 7-0 all-time against Tharptown with an average margin of victory of 25 points.

Hackleburg opened this season with a 48-27 win at Marion County before falling 28-26 at home to Decatur Heritage last week.

“Hackleburg is always tough—even when I was in school, they were tough,” said Lacey, a 2006 graduate of Phil Campbell High School. “Coach Hudson does a great job with them. It’s gonna be a challenge.”

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