Last Friday night, the Athens Academy Spartans feared they would be eliminated in the first round of the state playoffs to The Mount Vernon School. The Spartans rallied and battled their way back and eventually won 49-42 in overtime.
“Of course, there was fear,” Athens Academy head coach Josh Alexander said on Monday. “But I'm not sure we had time to be nervous. That’s why we practice high-pressure stuff all the time. Our kids do a good job and it just becomes repetitive. That's why you coach, to coach games like that.”
From the start, the Spartans were looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. After scoring on their first drive, the Mustangs recovered an onside kick, and soon after the Spartans were down 14-0 early in the first quarter.
“We feel really lucky to be sitting here today because there were times on Friday night we didn’t think that’d be the case,” Alexander said. “But our kids did a good job. We had really strongly senior leadership and they did a good job just sort of fighting. They don’t quit, and we were really proud of them.”
Caught off-guard, but not out of the fight, senior quarterback Palmer Bush led a scoring drive to get into the game. The Spartans scored three unanswered touchdowns, one rush from Bush, one rush from sophomore Tre Hawkins and one pass to Ethan Connelly for 37 yards.
The Mustangs scored another touchdown right before halftime, tying it 21-21.
Hawkins scored four more touchdowns, including a 4-yard run with 17 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 42-42.
The Spartans would not have needed a late-game push for the score if they had been able to successfully convert on fourth down earlier in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Mustangs started on the Spartan 25-yard line and took a 42-35 lead on a 15-yard pass from senior quarterback Blake Kytle.
“It’s one of those decisions you live and die with, and it just didn't go our way,” Alexander said about the fake punt. “It was something that you just have to deal with. Those are the cards you're dealt, and you either try to figure out how to win the game, or you're going home.”
It was seniors like Bush and Connelly that guided the Spartans to victory.
In overtime, Bush scored a 6-yard touchdown run, and Connelly played both sides and then grabbed a game-winning interception to send the Mustangs home.
“Connelly's always leading the team,” Alexander said. “He does a great job leading by example, and he motivates and mentors our kids to the fullest. There were others like Palmer Bush who did a great job. It was fun to watch him lead the team. He's done it three years. And you know, it was just a great team win all around. We were real proud of them.”
Alexander said the early deficit was “good for the soul,” and even said his team enjoyed fighting back.
The Spartans would like to avoid any more close games, but that may not be possible in the playoffs. For instance, this Friday, the Spartans will travel to Roswell to face the undefeated Fellowship Christian Paladins.
“It’s a very old team, with lots of seniors and lots of experience,” Alexander said about Fellowship Christian. “They're a determined football team, but our kids are looking forward to the challenge, and it's always an honor when you get to play this time of the year.”