Their last Class 1A, Region 7 football championship came back in 2006, but a win against resurgent Spring Garden on Friday would officially seal the deal and put an end to their title drought.
It wasn’t easy by any means, but Cedar Bluff managed to kick things into overdrive in the second half and take a 41-14 victory that not only secured a region championship, but also a first-round home playoff game as well.
Cedar Bluff (8-0, 8-0) will host Phillips of Bear Creek (5-4) when the first round of the state playoffs begin on Nov. 2.
Spring Garden (7-2, 6-2), which fell to the third playoff spot out of Region 7 with Friday’s loss, will travel to Shoals Christian (6-3).
“It feels great to bring a region championship back where it belongs,” Tiger senior receiver DeAngelo Hardy said. “Our team never got down, even when we got behind. I’m just so proud to be a Tiger.”
Cedar Bluff coach Jonathan McWhorter also said he’s proud the Tigers are bringing back another region championship across Weiss Lake.
“Our goal as a team is to always win a region championship, and this is the first one we’ve had in a while,” McWhorter said. “We’ve been in the conversation every year, but this is the first one in six years.
“This is great because football is really good in our region, but at the end of the day, though, it’s to set you up in the playoffs to try to make a run (at a state championship).”
For Spring Garden coach Jason Howard, Friday’s game was one of missed opportunities. The Panthers ended up losing three fumbles (two inside the Tiger 10-yard line) and had an uncharacteristic amount of penalties (9).
“I thought the pace of the game favored us for 2 ½ quarters,” Howard said. “We knew we had to stay ahead of the chains and we had to control the tempo of the game on offense, and I felt like we did a good job of that. The third quarter it was 14-13, and I felt like we were in good shape, but we had some blown opportunities. We dropped two (interceptions) we should have picked, then they (Cedar Bluff) started picking the tempo of the game up.”
But before Cedar Bluff went up-tempo, it was Spring Garden that set the tone.
The Panthers got on the scoreboard first on senior running back Forrest Livingston’s 2-yard touchdown run with 10:01 to go in the second quarter, capping an 11-play, 67-yard drive. Will Penton’s point after made it 7-0 Panthers.
Spring Garden’s lead was short-lived, as Cedar Bluff scored to tie the game 56 seconds later. Senior quarterback Levi Mintz connected with senior receiver DeAngelo Hardy on a 51-yard touchdown pass. Curtis Abernathy’s kick bounced off the upright, but was good to tie the game at 7.
Mintz and Hardy hooked up again just before the first half ended. This time, their connection went for 26 yards, as Hardy dove into the end zone to give the Tigers the lead at 13-7.
Mintz completed 17 of 27 pass attempts for 320 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for another.
Hardy was his top target of the night. He had six catches for 154 yards and two scores.
“We started out tonight kind of rough, but we started to get it going in the second half,” Mintz said. “They (Spring Garden) have a real solid defense, but our line was real good tonight. They were stopping the run (in the first half), so we had to get it out on the edges. I just had to get the ball to our playmakers.”
Spring Garden’s defense capitalized early in the third quarter off a D’Shawn Fife fumble recovered by Jake Grogan. The Panthers set up inside the Tiger 40 and marched 10 plays for the score. Morgan took scoring honors with a 2-yard run. Penton’s extra point put the Panthers in front 14-13 with 6:44 remaining in the third quarter.
Cedar Bluff regained the lead on its ensuing possession, with Mintz tossing his third touchdown pass of the night. This one went to senior receiver Rickey Pendley for 17 yards. Mintz’s pass fell incomplete for the 2-point conversion, keeping the score at 19-14 Tigers with 4:54 to go in the third.
After a Spring Garden punt, Cedar Bluff found the end zone again. Mintz finished off a 6-play, 62-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown rush up the middle. Fife added the 2-point conversion run, giving the Tigers a 27-14 edge at the 1:17 mark of the third.
Spring Garden looked as if it would creep back in the game. Morgan dashed 52 yards on the first play of the Panthers’ next possession. A Tiger penalty gave Spring Garden a first-and-goal at the 10.
Two plays later, however, quarterback Will Ivey mishandled a snap, which was recovered by Cedar Bluff senior lineman Nick Combs at the Tiger 5.
Combs also recovered another fumble late in the game. He said he was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
“We go out and play hard, and when we need somebody to come up with a big play, we’ve got to find somebody to do that,” Combs said. “Sometimes it’s not who you think it would be, and I guess I was the kind of guy to do that tonight.”
Four plays after the turnover, Mintz found senior receiver Alex Hairston for a 54-yard scoring strike to essentially put the game out of reach. Abernathy’s kick made it 34-14 Tigers with 11:23 to go in the game.
Hairston recovered a Morgan fumble on the ensuing kickoff at the Panther 30. Fife scored four plays later on a 14-yard run with 10:05 remaining for the final.
“Our kids are very resilient,” McWhorter said. “We’ve tried our best to teach them not to get too up or too down. We just keep playing. They just kept hanging in there. We were able to hit a couple of big plays in the second half to kind of break it open. I felt like we let a couple of them get away in the first half, but again, our kids didn’t get down. We just kept fighting and found a way to win.”