HARTSELLE — There was no hesitation.
As Deacon Aldridge was pressured out of the pocket and forced to throw a fourth-down incompletion deep in Decatur High territory, the Red Raiders’ sideline simultaneously erupted in elation.
Defenders were welcomed with chest bumps and high fives as they ran off the field holding their fists in the air.
There was no holding back the celebration — and it was warranted.
The upset happened. Behind sound special teams and defense, Decatur ended one of the state’s longest winning streaks at 19 games with a 21-14 win Friday night at Class 5A No. 1 Hartselle.
“There is no describing this feeling,” Decatur defensive end Na’Vante Williams said. “Everyone came together. Everyone was determined to take this back. This was a huge win for us. There’s no question about that.”
Pitted against a Hartselle defense that’s considered one of the best in north Alabama, Decatur (3-2) willed its way to a marquee win the old-fashioned way.
With sound special teams and gritty defense.
In fact, the biggest star of the game likely won’t find his way onto any television highlight reels.
Clinging to a seven-point lead with less than three minutes remaining in the game, punter Jackson Walraven kicked a booming punt from around midfield that pinned Hartselle (4-1) on its own 4-yard line.
“I knew I had to get it down there,” Walraven said. “The only thing going through my mind was that I had to catch the snap and get a clean punt off. I got great protection, and when I saw the ball was downed at the 4, I knew our defense was going to get us the win.
“This is pretty surreal. The energy in this locker room tonight, it’s the best I’ve ever been in.”
Decatur needed every bit of the distance, because as expected, Hartselle’s Cardiac Kids didn’t go down without a fight.
Hartselle has needed fourth-quarter rallies for two of its four wins. The Tigers nearly pulled off another dramatic finish. Aldridge completed several tough passes, and Hartselle overcame two personal fouls that put the Tigers in a first-and-39 situation, to drive deep into Decatur territory.
But Decatur got the biggest stop of the game when the Red Raiders needed it most, forcing Hartselle to turn the ball over on downs at the Decatur 24 with three seconds remaining.
“Our coaches put together a great game plan and the players came out and did a fantastic job of executing,” Decatur coach Jere Adcock said. “It’s like we talked about earlier this week, this game was going to come down to defense and special teams, because that’s a great Hartselle team over there.
“This was our most complete game of the year — something we can definitely build on.”
Adcock is correct about special teams. Decatur’s specialists made more than one play that was, well, special.
Two of Decatur’s three touchdowns were the result of special teams heroics.
After Hartselle took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards on 15 plays to get a 1-yard touchdown run from Aldridge, a Decatur specialist immediately answered. Tae Hayes returned the ensuing kickoff 81 yards for a score.
Special teams struck again in the fourth quarter. With the game tied at 14 apiece, Trae Hayes blocked a Hartselle 37-yard field goal attempt and returned the ball to midfield. Three plays later, Decatur quarterback Jackson Fite took a third-and 17 situation and scrambled 34 yards for a key first down that set up a 14-yard touchdown run from Josh Matthews.
Matthews finished with 66 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
“That play Jackson made in the fourth quarter was huge,” Williams said. “The blocked punt and the plays by our two Jacksons, the first down run and the punt, those were by far the biggest plays of the game. We needed every one of them because Hartselle is as good as advertised. They’re extremely physical and will hit you in the mouth. Those are the kind of teams I love to play against.”
Even though Hartselle’s offense struggled to find the end zone in the second half, the unit consistently moved the ball between the 20s. The Tigers outgained Decatur 364 to 206, and Aldridge accounted for 268 yards.
Aldridge finished with 191 yards on 20-of-31 passing, and he ran for 77 yards on 20 carries. The senior quarterback threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Zane Hamlett in the first quarter.
“We just didn’t execute well enough to win,” Hartselle coach Bob Godsey said. “Decatur played really well, but we kept putting ourselves in bad situations. But all is not lost. In the bigger picture, this may be the best thing that could have happened to us. Now we’ve just got to regroup and get back to work, because we’ve got another tough game coming up.”
Hartselle travels to play Class 5A No. 2 Muscle Shoals next week in what is one of the state’s marquee games. Decatur travels to Bob Jones.
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