Story by Griffin Pritchard | Publisher
Photos by Brian Tannehill | Director of Photography
MONTGOMERY – With less than three seconds left in regulation Alex Kohn stepped into a 37-yard field goal and sent it sailing into a tension-filled night sky. The kick fell true – not by much – but enough to send the Montgomery Academy Eagles into the state championship and the previously-unbeaten Montgomery Catholic Knights to the locker room for the last time in the 2021 football season. MA advances to the championship game at Birmingham’s newly constructed Protective Stadium Thursday at 11 against Piedmont. Piedmont knocked off Saks (who knocked out juggernaut Fyffe the round prior) in overtime to advance.
The loss left the Catholic community shook; staring in disbelief as jubilation filled the visitor’s side of the gridiron.
“We didn’t play Montgomery Catholic football,” said Kirk Johnson, coach of the Knights. “They did an excellent job of executing and running their gameplan. They made us play their brand of football and we never got back to playing ours.”
It was evident both in the score and the stat sheet. The Eagles – who engineered a physical 10-plus minute scoring drive, consuming more than eight minutes of the second quarter – held Catholic (averaging just over 48 points an outing) to a season-low in scoring and first-half yardage. Montgomery Academy held the Knights to 81 first-half yards and scoreless in the first half for the first time this season.
“That was our gameplan; let our defense take them off the field and our offense grind it down and score,” said JaShawn Cooper, who scored the first and only touchdown for Montgomery Academy. “We knew it was going to be a close game, but that’s what we wanted. We needed to get three or four yards a gain, that’s all we needed to do.”
This meeting marks the fourth time the two teams have played in the past two seasons – and could be the beginnings of a rivalry as both teams are expected to move to Class 4A because of the AHSAA’s Competitive Balance rule. The Knights upset the Eagles in the semifinals a year ago and then defeated them 42-0 when they met September 24.
“These kids improved each and every week in the playoffs. That’s one heck of a team. They steamrolled everybody this season, including us,” said Robert Johnson, coach of the Eagles. “Hats off (to our coaches) for coming up with a scheme to stop that juggernaut. Coach (Ethan) McBride knew we could do it and he came up to me after that first game and said we could hold them to 10 or seven points. He knew it then. I told him I didn’t know if I could score, but we were going to try to find some points somewhere.”
Catholic struck first on a pass from Caleb McCreary to Lucas Harkless but the 39-yard touchdown was negated by a penalty that ultimately forced the Knights to punt.
That was the first-half highlight for the night – aside from the play of their punter and his ability to pin the Eagles inside their own 5-yard line multiple times.
Montgomery Academy’s scoring drive – which started with under 1:20 left in the opening stanza – kicked off at their own 1 and covered 99 yards.
“That’s a primary reason we lost,” said Catholic’s Johnson. “We thought at least that we could hold them to a field goal. But we were misaligned and weren’t ready. It took us too long to realize we’re in a game.”
JaShawn Cooper and Jamal Cooper – with help from wingback Ruston Bassett – engineered a 19-play drive that was capped by a 3-yard scoring run by JaShawn into the heart of the Knights defense. With the kick, the Eagles went up 7-0.
MA’s Johnson said: “Those guys are unbelievable. (JaShawn) is a freaking load and people don’t realize it until they have to go and tackle him. Moving (Jamal) to quarterback wasn’t a big deal because he did bring that run game and he’s so poised back there. Those kids played unreal and – what most folks don’t understand – is they didn’t come out of the game and played great on both sides of the ball. That’s a testament to their heart and character and willingness to be in shape and to this program.”
At this point – Catholic’s offensive output became an exercise in futility as the Eagles sold out defensively to stop the run.
MA’s Johnson said: “When we were preparing for this game, we lined our team up and told them to go where you were when we played this team the first time. Now, go where you are now. There were eight changes just on offense. We started moving around people and searched and worked to figure out what we could find to work.”
The Knights scored their final touchdown of the season midway through the fourth quarter. McCreary – who had been scrambling in and around defenders most of the game – settled in and completed passes of 23 and 20 yards before finding Harkless in the end zone for the 24-yard touchdown pass.
Catholic’s Johnson: “We probably should have went to (Caleb) earlier and better utilize his abilities. But they did a good job of lining up and putting a box on our offense.”
With the kick, the Knights tied the game with 8:11 to play.
MA was forced to punt on the following possession, giving the Knights the ball around midfield. McCreary hit Cobb for a 10-yard gain. But, after the sticks were moved, threw an incomplete pass and then was sacked twice for a loss of 15 yards. First and 10 within striking distance of Birmingham turned into fourth and 25 bringing out the punter.
MA took over at their own 20 and – with the help of an illegal helmet contact call over on the MA sideline – moved the ball to the opposing 20 where they ran Kohn and the kicking team out.
“We started the season with a game-winning field goal at the last second,” said MA’s Johnson. “They tried to freeze him and that’s the wrong thing to do because it just pumped him up more. We had two big runs the last couple of plays which picked up about six more yards and moved us closer. I was playing for a field goal that whole drive. That’s the confidence we have in him.”
While the Knights are left reflecting on a season that was and with a roster of collegiate talent and potential All-State nomination – Johnson and the seniors realize just how far this program has come.
“There’s a lot of emotions left on that field and in that locker room,” said Johnson. “For so long, all these schools in the area and across the state wanted to schedule Catholic for homecoming. These guys have changed that. It’s good to see these seniors walk around with their heads high and their chests out. This school is high on academics and has a strong religious backing and that’s reason to celebrate. These men are going to become better brothers, sons, husbands and ultimately dads and that’s the message I wanted them to understand.”
The 15 senior Knights who played their final high school football – in Johnson’s view – understands that.
“They know that things are not easy. Everybody wants to make millions. It’s not easy. You have to work to get there. All the things you want to do and want to accomplish in your life are not easy and I think this senior class understands that.”
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