Stanhope Elmore coach Brian Bradford stood with tears in his eyes watching his Mustangs console one another following Friday’s cold November loss to the upset-minded Park Crossing Thunderbirds, 35-32.
“We’ve got a heckuva football team,” Bradford said. “I love coming to work every single day. This is the best group I’ve ever coached and I’m proud to be their coach.”
On the other side of the dew-laden Cramton Bowl turf was jubilation.
“We came out and played hard like we’ve done every week,” Park Crossing coach C.J. Harris said. “The kids came out and turned it on. We are going to come out and play Park Crossing football.”
For their victory, the Thunderbirds will travel south to face the Spanish Fort Toros, who were 63-21 winners over Wetumpka on Friday night in Round 2 of the AHSAA playoffs.
“I’m fine with being the underdog,” Harris said. “I want to be the underdog every week.”
What the Thunderbirds (5-7) have done thus far is bordering on history as 35 years have passed since a three-win team — in the regular season — advanced to the third round of the playoffs.
The Mustangs (9-3) found themselves behind the eight-ball early, down 14-0, following injuries that forced the run-minded wild horses into a spread attack.
“We got out of rhythm and had to change what we do,” Bradford said. “The kids kept fighting all night. We had three kids playing different positions that they haven’t been in since Week 1. But they fought all night.”
But they made it work as quarterback Andrew Rines (7-15-2 for 123 yards and three touchdowns) connected with Conner Bradford in the end zone for the touchdown.
The point after was stuffed, and the opening stanza ended with a 14-6 tally.
Tray Duncan, however, went to work in the second period taking the direct snap 22 yards to the Park Crossing 5 then on first-and-goal called his own number for the touchdown run. Bradford elected to go for two but Rines’ pass was overthrown.
A litany of penalties and key Thunderbird miscues allowed the Mustangs to keep applying the pressure.
Faced with a fourth and seven from their opponent’s 8-yard line, the field goal team took the field.
But the blue-clad Park Crossing defense moved ahead of the snap and was penalized half the distance.
Duncan (71 yards on 20 carries and two scores) converted the fourth and short then followed his blockers into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
This time the decision to kick the point after put the Mustangs up, 19-14.
Park Crossing recaptured the lead less than a minute later when quarterback Trevor Robinson took off on a 72-yard scamper through the defense and into the end zone for the touchdown.
With the point after sailing through, the Thunderbirds were able to take a 21-19 lead into the intermission.
“One thing I learned from coach (Jamey) DuBose and coach (Bill) Clark back in the day is that if you are in the playoffs, you want to go deep and you can’t do that without being able to run the football,” Harris said. “You can’t run the football in the playoffs; you can’t win.”
Park Crossing did just that, running for a combined 318 yards.
In the second half, the Mustangs made plays and forced turnovers but couldn’t convert in crucial situations. This time it was Park Crossing’s Adaryll Lewis who took the handoff 28 yards for the touchdown. With the kick, the lead swelled to 28-19.
Stanhope Elmore answered. Rines connected with Bradford (six receptions for 93 yards and two scores) twice — the first a 13-yard pass to the sideline and the second a one-handed grab over two defenders for the touchdown.
The point after was wide but the margin was cut to 28-25.
Like he was shot out of a cannon, Lewis led the Thunderbirds back to glory with a trio of runs culminating in a touchdown and a 10-point lead.
Park Crossing wasn’t only hamstrung by penalties. Turnovers became an issue too, especially in the fourth quarter.
Anthony Toby pounced on a loose ball at the Park Crossing 30.
On first down, Rines completed a 30-yard pass to Dalton Smith for the score.
With the kick, the tally moved to 35-32.
“They didn’t give up,” Bradford said. “They kept fighting to the very last play. And I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. For these younger guys to see these seniors and the way they’ve played, they're nothing but winners.”
With 1:29 left to play and a chance to close out the game, Park Crossing fumbled the fourth and one snap forcing Robinson to fall on it and turn the ball over.
The Mustangs — not one to look gift horses in the mouth — moved the ball across the 50 and to the 35 their opponent’s 35-yard line.
But with 19 seconds left to play the game ended when Stanhope Elmore lost possession and Park Crossing recovered, securing the victory.