Caiden Hawkins stood at midfield, soaking in a moment he first dreamed about back when such a dream seemed far-fetched for Pisgah.
“Since I was a freshman, seeing the team develop into what we are now, this was a long way coming. Everyone has fit into their roles so perfectly. Now we’re finally there and trying to push on even more,” said the senior linebacker, whose freshman and sophomore seasons saw the Eagles go a combined 7-14. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been on a football field.”
It’s the happiest the Pisgah football program has been in 20 years.
The No. 8-ranked Eagles are headed back to the state semifinals for the first time since 2002 thanks to a thrilling 26-22 Class 2A state quarterfinal victory over visiting No. 4 Aliceville at Sam Kenimer Stadium Friday night.
Pisgah (11-2) advanced to play at Class 2A Region 7 rival and top-ranked Fyffe (13-0) in the state semifinals next Friday. The winner advances to the Class 2A State Championship Game Dec. 2 at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“It’s awesome. Proud of these kids. This a great win for our community. Getting it back to like it used to be,” said Pisgah head coach Luke Pruitt. “I took every minute to get it done and that’s what we said it was going to be and that’s what happened. Proud of our kids. It took every one of these guys in black (uniforms). They executed the plan. Aliceville is a heck of a football team. We made one more play than they did.”
That one more play came in the final minute when freshman Jett Jeffery sealed the Eagles’ win with an interception.
“I was there when I needed to be,” said Jeffery, adding that fellow outside linebacker Levi Horton passed off the coverage of the route in a defensive adjustment just before the snap. “(The pass) hit me right in the chest — it couldn’t have been more perfect.”
Pisgah couldn’t have asked for a better start to the matchup, jumping out to a 14-0 lead.
JD Martin’s fumble recovery led to the Eagles’ first score, a 1-yard Legion McCrary touchdown run for a 6-0 lead with 9 seconds left in the opening quarter.
After Pisgah forced Aliceville to turn it over on downs with 9:41 left in the second quarter, the Eagles quickly took advantage. After a 15-yard run by McCrary, a holding penalty and a negative play put Pisgah behind the chains. But on the next play, Holcomb found Gilbert down the sideline for a 53-yard gain to the Aliceville 1-yard line. McCray scored again and ran in the two-point try to give Pisgah a 14-0 lead with just under eight minutes left until halftime.
Aliceville (11-2) answered with a scoring drive of its own, capped off by quarterback Ty’Jarian Williams’s 6-yard touchdown run. Aliceville converted its two-point attempt, cutting the Pisgah lead to 14-8.
But Pisgah started the next possession with back-to-back 16-yard runs from Holcomb and McCrary, and three straight McCrary carries got Pisgah to the 5-yard line, where Holcomb faked the handoff to McCrary and walked into the end zone untouched to put Pisgah in front 20-8 with 2:22 left in the half.
Aliceville then fell just a few yards short of cutting into the lead and possibly swinging the momentum of the game. The Yellow Jackets drove down the field thanks to three long passes and a 16-yard run by Williams to the 3-yard line. Aliceville called timeout with 0.6 seconds left on the clock after Williams’ run. On the last play of the half, Williams took the snap and ran left, but he stumbled and fell down at the 8-yard line, leaving Pisgah in front 20-8 at halftime.
“The (defensive) stop at the end of the half was huge,” Pruitt said.
But the Yellow Jackets offense didn’t stall in the third quarter, needing just five plays and two minutes to score to start the second half. A 45-yard run from Jermaine Ivy set up a 4-yard score from Williams. The two-point conversion try was successful, and Aliceville cut the Eagles’ lead to 20-16.
Pisgah’s next drive took nearly eight minutes off the clock, but ended with a punt that pinned Aliceville at its own 3-yard line. On the fourth play of the possession, Tyquan Simon took a shovel pass from Williams 63 yards to the end zone to give the Yellow Jackets a 22-20 lead entering the fourth quarter.
But Pisgah countered with another long scoring drive. The Eagles converted a fourth down early in the drive after McCrary was pulled down by his facemask. The drive looked to be thwarted when Holcomb was sacked for a loss of 12 yards on first down, but on third-and-22, Holcomb’s long pass intended for Kirby was deflected and fell into McCray’s arms for a 30-yard gain. Another facemask penalty a few plays later put the ball at the Aliceville 5-yard line, McCray took the direct snap, ran right and dove into the end zone for what proved to be the winning touchdown with 6:48 left in the game.
The Yellow Jackets threatened to regain the lead after driving deep into Pisgah territory. Williams completed a long pass on a fourth-and-long play, but he was passed the line of scrimmage when the threw it, resulting in a loss of down penalty that gave Pisgah the ball back. The Eagles went three-and-out and punted the ball back to Aliceville with 1:55 left in the game. But on the fourth play of the Yellow Jackets’ possession, Jeffery stepped in front of the Aliceville receiver and intercepted Williams’ pass, sealing the victory of the Eagles.
“We new if we all did our job,” Hawkins said, “we’d be able to stop them.”
Pisgah’s offense had a big night running the football, and it came mostly between the tackles. McCray led the Eagles offense with 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. Holcomb, who completed six passes for 110 yards, also had several long runs on quarterback reads.
“We thought we could go at them,” Pruitt said. “It wasn’t outside, it was between the tackles. Our offensive line did a great job.”
Pruitt lauded his team for responding to Aliceville’s rally.
“Our kids never wavered when got behind. We kept playing like we have all year,” he said. “We’ve been down multiple times, and guys never checked up.”
Now the Eagles are headed to the state semifinals for the third time in school history.
“When we got finished with spring training, we said ‘why not us?’” Pruitt said. “We knew who was going to be there in the North (Fyffe), the team we’re about to play. Knew they were going to be there, why couldn’t we be there? If we controlled our own destiny, if we did what we’re supposed to do, we’d have a chance. Now we’ve got a chance.”