Sanford, ACA enjoying perfect start to season
By Tim Gayle
First-year coach Nate Sanford wasn’t particularly surprised his Alabama Christian Academy team was leading Dale County 34-7 in the second half. What was surprising was his team blew the lead and had to hold on late for a 34-27 victory.
“Friday night was really the best possible thing that could have happened to us,” Sanford said. “We did a lot of great things, we executed a game plan, we made some selfish mistakes in the fourth quarter that caused a couple of kids to have to come off the field — and that’s one of the reasons they were able to throw on us late — but we still prevailed. It’s always better when you can learn your lessons and still win.”
The Warhawks were coming off a 38-6 win over Trinity at home the week before, so Friday night’s game was easily the biggest challenge of the young season for the Eagles.
“We knew at some point if we could stop No. 1 (Deonte Henderson), who is a very good running back, their next best weapon was throwing it over the top to those two tall receivers they have,” Sanford said. “We were able to stifle that at first and then in the fourth quarter they hit three or four of them and that turned it into a close game.”
The Eagles countered with a receiving weapon of their own in first-year wideout Grayson Evans, who scored an early touchdown to get ACA rolling; helped Alden Stroud score a touchdown with his downfield blocking; threw a 28-yard reverse pass by checking down to his secondary receiver, quarterback Reece Solar; and caught a third-and-27 pass from Solar for a 33-yard gain with a little more than a minute remaining to help the Eagles run out the clock.
The biggest surprise for this upstart group of Eagles is its run defense, bolstered by the move of tight end Garrett Cottingham to defensive end, the move of outside linebacker Cole Schlemmer to inside linebacker and the development of junior linebacker Dawson Locklier.
“Stopping the run was a big question mark with DeMarvin Perry and Dusty Young, our two fine inside linebackers that graduated last year, not being available,” Sanford said. “Cole Schlemmer has moved inside from outside linebacker and Dawson Locklier, who was a 160-pound sophomore getting kicked around last year, is a 190-pound junior who has filled in admirably for those two guys. Where DeMarvin might have given us a few more big-play potential last year, those two guys have picked up all of the rest of the slack.”
And to this point, the Eagles have been able to control the game with an error-free attack that features plenty of running.
“The biggest area of improvement on our team has been the offensive line,” Sanford said. “We moved two guys over there who just played defense last year, David Coulter and Ty Taveras. They play every down on defense and now they play every down on offense, too, and they are just warriors. They have drastically improved our overall level of play. We’re leading the state in rushing and when you do that, you control the clock and if you can control the clock, you can control the game and good things happen, especially if you protect the ball.”
Suddenly, the 4-0 Eagles find themselves in the same position a 3-0 Catholic team was a week earlier, coming off a huge victory and facing a determined underdog in crosstown rival Trinity. Catholic flunked the test, losing to the Wildcats 32-22 on Friday night. Can ACA handle success?
“We’re going to find out,” Sanford said. “We have four senior captains who are doing a tremendous job of keeping everyone’s head screwed on right. These kids are so hungry to become the kind of team that they know they can be and cast off this ‘old ACA mentality’ of ‘oh, we were pretty good, we played them pretty tough, we almost did it’ kind of mindset. But they’re not having it, they’re not having any part of that. And it’s up to the other 54 guys to get on the train that they’re driving right now.”
The last time Alabama Christian was 4-0, the Eagles would win just two games through the rest of the 2000 season and miss the playoffs. A victory on Friday would make Alabama Christian 5-0 for the first time since the 1990 team reached the quarterfinals of the state playoffs before losing to Reeltown.
“We are training them to have a winning mentality,” Sanford said, “and since that hasn’t been the case for ACA on the field, for the most part, you have to learn how to win, how to learn to play hard when you’re ahead.”