By Josh Bean | For the AHSAA
BIRMINGHAM – Clarke County High School’s defense has already been shredded for more than 400 yards and five touchdowns as Cleveland drove inside the Bulldogs’ 20 again late in the third quarter of the AHSAA Super 7 Class 2A state championship game Friday afternoon.
Clarke County’s Mar Johnson then delivered the game’s decisive play.
Johnson stepped in front of Cleveland quarterback Logan Washburn’s pass and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown providing Clarke County to a 49-35 lead. The Bulldogs went on to earn a 49-41 victory at Birmingham’s Protective Stadium.
“I broke on the ball, made the catch and just ran as fast I can,” Johnson said.
Added Clarke County Coach Stacy Luker, “It was a big play. It gave us a little space, a little space we needed.”
With the win Clarke County (13-2), which had its first football season 114 years earlier in 1907, captured its first state football championship. Luker, recently selected to be inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame, coached his sixth career state title after winning five at Class 1A Sweet Water. It’s also Clarke County’s first state championship in any sport since 1991.
Luker noted Clarke County, located in Grove Hill, is surrounded by nearby schools that have won state titles in the last 20 years, including Jackson, Thomasville, Leroy and Sweet Water – all located on or near U.S, Highway 43 in West Alabama.
“Long overdue,” Luker said of the school’s first football title. “I’m honored to be part of it and be part of this community.”
The 2A title game and Friday’s remaining 6A championship game are being televised over the AHSAA TV Network and live-streamed over the NFHS Network. WOTM TV is producing the contests, and the AHSAA Radio Network is broadcasting all finals over its network of radio stations and the internet.
The two teams combined for 936 yards of total offense in the highest scoring 2A championship game in Super 7 history. Cleveland had 499 yards, and Clarke County rolled up 301 rushing yards and 437 total yards.
Luker built his Hall-of-Fame career on a game plan emphasizing a rugged running game and stingy defense but found himself in a rare high-scoring shootout. The teams combined for 10 first-half touchdowns and a 35-35 tie before Clarke County forced the first Cleveland punt on the opening drive of the second half.
Clarke County then drove deep into Cleveland territory before stalling and facing third-and-9 at the 11. Pace Young threw a perfect fade to Johnson to make it 42-35.
Cleveland appeared poised to answer, but Johnson’s intercepted Washburn on the ensuing possession and changed the game when he raced 89 yards into the end zone. Washburn was 11-of-12 in the first half.
“I thought 35 or 42 (points) wins the game,” Cleveland coach Gardner Gilliland said, “and you go into the half 35-to-35. The first half seemed like it took forever, and the second half seemed like it went by like a blur.”
The two teams played to a 35-all tie at halftime, as each team scored on its first five drives.
Cleveland (12-3) fell one win shy of capturing its first state football title in its first trip to the championship round.
“The first half, it was crazy back and forth,” Washburn said. “It was just a great half of football.”
Cleveland answered Mar Johnson’s interception return with another scoring drive, as Jacob Johnson caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Washburn to make it 49-41. The Panthers’ final two drives sputtered, however, as Clarke County’s Briley Moore made a fourth-down tackle and added a sack.
“Briley, that’s the best game he’s ever played,” Clarke County senior Ron Johnson said. “He really stepped up.”
Clarke County’s Ron Johnson, who earned Class 2A championship game MVP, ran 62 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play and added a 26-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter. He also caught a 16-yard TD pass, and Young threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Mar Johnson and A.J. Ezell scored on a 14-yard run.
Washburn scored on first-half runs of 1, 48 and 3 yards and threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Pierce Gilliland. Tyler Johnson also scored on a 3-yard run.
Clarke County’s final drive of the first half ended with the game’s first punt, and Cleveland drove to the Clarke County 31 before calling timeout with 1 second to go before halftime. Mar Johnson intercepted Johnson’s pass to preserve a 35-all tie at intermission.
“Man, what a game. Wow,” Luker said. “What a great year, a great run. Any time you win a state championship, it’s a great run.”
Ron Johnson ran 16 times for 165 yards and two touchdowns for Clarke County, and Mar Johnson caught two touchdown passes and intercepted two passes. Justin Galliard led the defense with seven tackles.
Washburn completed 14-of-19 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns and added 21 carries for 182 yards and three touchdowns accounting for 451 yards total offense and five touchdowns. Pierce Gilliland had six catches for 160 yards, and Karter Adams led all defense with 16 tackles. Gilliland also had 10 tackles.
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