FORT PAYNE — Thomas Fleischman didn't hold anything back.
With Fort Payne 19 yards away from a potential game-tying touchdown, Fleischman gave Hartselle High exactly what it needed: A big play — and it was delivered with authority.
Fleischman drove Fort Payne quarterback Dale Jackson into the ground for a 14-yard loss on third down, and two Hartselle defenders deflected a final desperation heave at the end zone on the following play, sending the Tigers' sideline into elation with a 14-6 upset of the second-ranked Wildcats Friday night in the opening round of the Class 5A playoffs.
Hartselle (7-4) advances to play Wenonah next week.
"I have to admit that I was scared," said Fleischman, a senior defensive end. "There had been several times this season where we had been in that situation and weren't able to make a play. We weren't going to let that happen again. Not tonight. It's a pretty surreal moment."
Hartselle, the defending state champion, found itself in unfamiliar position as the underdog. With chips on their shoulders, the Tigers thrived in that role.
Fort Payne's high-scoring offense never gained any momentum. Hartselle's defense wouldn't allow it.
Swarming around the football and relying on sound pass coverage, Hartselle's defense didn't give up any big plays. Fort Payne's longest gain was a 24-yard reception late in the fourth quarter.
And Fort Payne (10-1), which didn't drive past the 50-yard line until the third quarter, never found the end zone. Logan McPherson's two field goals — from 27 and 25 yards — were the Wildcats' lone scores.
Jackson finished with 125 yards on 13 of 37 passing.
"Our defense played outstanding," Hartselle coach Bob Godsey said. "It wasn't just a couple of guys. We had several guys making play after play."
Hartselle controlled time-of-possession with its running game. Quarterback Deacon Aldridge ran for 116 yards and score, while Blake Slayton added 62 yards on the ground.
Aldridge got Hartselle on the scoreboard early, throwing a 44-yard touchdown pass to Tanner Oaks on the second series of the game. Aldridge finished with 105 yards on 5 of 10 passing.
"Coming into the game, we wanted to be a little more balanced on offense," Aldridge said. "We had a couple of opportunities to make some plays and put the game away, but had some things not go our way. But as the game wore on, we just kept grinding and found a way to win."
Clinging to a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, Aldridge and company gave Hartselle some breathing room with a momentum-changing drive.
Aldridge moved Hartselle into Fort Payne territory when he ran an option keeper 44 yards. A few plays later, Aldridge ran 5 yards for a touchdown.
"When they got us that touchdown, all of us on defense knew we had to make it stand up," Fleischman said. "We weren't going to be denied."
Godsey offered high praise for his team.
"This season, yes, we returned a lot of players, but we also had some inexperienced guys on the field," he said. "There have been some mistakes made, but you hope players learn from mistakes so that by this point in the season you're playing your best football.
"These guys have handled adversity all season, and they've come a long way. Tonight was a great example of that.
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