AUBURN — Turning to face his team on the sideline, Laron White nodded as the water cooler quickly approached.
White didn't try to run. He didn't try to duck. The Tanner High football coach took his Gatorade shower on the chin — literally.
A few players crashed into White as they doused their coach with water, sparking a long-awaited celebration for the Rattlers — one that marked the program's first state title.
Tanner celebrated like it played on the field: Physically. The Rattlers bullied Washington County with punishing defense, beating the Bulldogs 28-14 Friday night at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium to claim the Class 2A state championship.
"Yeah, they got a little rough with it," White said.
"But I told them that if we won, then they could dump the cooler on me — that I would invite it."
The usually reserved White was in rare form on the Plains, letting his guard down just long enough to enjoy the moment with his players.
"All the guys know I played football at the University of Alabama," the former Crimson Tide offensive lineman said. "But right now, this is my favorite field. I told them I'd kiss the field before we leave."
Like their coach, Tanner's players basked in the moment. Throughout the playoffs, postgame celebrations were minimal. That changed Friday when the clock ticked down to zero.
When quarterback Jonathon Fletcher took a knee on Tanner's final play, the Rattlers' sideline rushed onto the field to join in a lively celebration.
"What I'm feeling right now, words can't describe," Tanner defensive end Kyle Shoulders said as he walked off the field. "This is a dream come true. The ride back home is going to be crazy."
Tanner linebacker Fred Rich echoed those sentiments.
"When that clock hit zero, it was like the whole season played back through my mind," the senior UAB commitment said. "There were so many emotions. It was unbelievable."
Tanner (14-0) earned its championship moment the old-fashioned way — playing a physical brand of football.
The Rattlers only attempted three passes. But with a power-running game that moved the chains with ease — complemented by dominant defense — a high-flying passing game wasn't needed.
Led by junior speedster Hayden Stephens, Tanner amassed 290 yards on the ground.
Stephens piled up the bulk of the yards, finishing with 139 on 29 carries. Rich added 79 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries.
"That's who we are. We're going to run the football, and let our defense dictate the game," White said. "We've got several good running backs and a great offensive line, and today, we did a good job of getting a body on a body. That's what it boils down to."
Tanner took over the game in the second half. Fletcher broke a 7-7 tie midway through the third quarter when he turned a busted play into a touchdown, scrambling around several Washington County (12-2) defenders as he weaved his way to a five-yard touchdown run.
"Jon-Jon's run was probably the biggest play of the game," White said. "We needed a play and he made it happen. Different guys made big plays for us all night."
Tanner's defense took over from there. Deshun Freeman spoiled a potential Washington County scoring drive when he intercepted quarterback Dane Howard in the end zone and returned the ball to the Rattlers' 7, setting up a 12-play drive that ended with a four-yard touchdown run by Rich.
Tanner's defense struck again late in the fourth quarter when Fletcher intercepted Howard and returned the ball 44 yards for a score, giving the Rattlers a 28-7 lead and putting the game out of reach.
Howard finished with 133 yards on 8-of-18 passing with four interceptions. Washington County's vaunted triple-option rushing attack didn't fare any better. Tanner held the Bulldogs to 82 yards on the ground, with star tailback T.J. Kidd running for 79 yards on 17 carries.
"They (Tanner) were very hard hitters," Kidd said. "There was not a lot of room to run. They are definitely the best team we've played all year."
A compliment well deserved.
As for Tanner? The Rattlers' long-awaited celebration continued well after the game ended, and according to the players, the emotion of their championship moment likely will last for a while.
"I'm still hyped up right now," Fletcher said about 25 minutes after the game had ended. "This feeling is unreal. It's going to be crazy on the way home, and it's going to be loud. I've never felt this good before, and I don't ever want this feeling to go away. It's unbelievable."
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