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CHAMPS, AGAIN: State championship trophy returns to Piedmont

Piedmont football

Piedmont head coach Steve Smith celebrates with son Sean after winning that blue trophy. Piedmont played Mobile Christian Thursday for the 3A state football championship at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. Piedmont won the game 26-24. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

AUBURN — Jack Hayes is a state-final most valuable player as a freshman, three years after older brother Taylor did the same in the same stadium.

Sean Smith is a smiling state champion, one year after he literally became the picture of grief in defeat.

Steve Smith — who called on his son, Jakari Foster and Hayes to pull double duty in key adjustments — is a voice-choking, tear-fighting state champion for the fourth time.

Hayes’ 27-yard touchdown pass to Foster gave Piedmont the lead with 35 seconds to play, and Hayes’ interception clinched the Bulldogs’ 26-24 victory over Mobile Christian in Thursday’s Alabama Class 3A final in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Piedmont (14-1) overcame a 10-0 halftime deficit to win its first state title since 2016, when the Bulldogs beat Mobile Christian (9-5) in the same stadium.

The state title marks Piedmont’s fourth in Smith’s 14-year run as its head coach and third in five years. The Bulldogs lost to Flomaton in last year’s title game and ushered in new starters at 16 positions with 35 freshmen and sophomores on a 48-man roster.

“All of them are special, but this one is unique in the sense that a lot of people in this room that have watched these kids grow up will tell you this is a fun-loving bunch,” Steve Smith said. “They’re different animals when it comes to how things impact them. They just let it roll off their back.

“I know I ain’t got near the energy I used to, but, hopefully, coaching a lot of these guys for two, three or four more years is going to keep me younger. We got a mindset that, we don’t care how young we are. We’re supposed to win.”

Hayes, younger brother of 2016 state-finals MVP Taylor Hayes, did it every which way. After going 8-for-21 in the first half, he finished 13-for-29 for 204 yards and two touchdown passes. He also rushed for 107 yards and two scores.

The younger Hayes clinched the game with a rare appearance on defense, when Steve Smith commanded long-time defensive coordinator James Blanchard to field the team’s 11 best players. The clinching interception of a Kason Lincke pass came on the freshman’s first defensive action of the season.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “(Defensive back) Brant (Deerman) told me to cover the out route. That’s what I did, and he just threw it right to me.”

Foster plays primarily defense, at cornerback, but sees spot duty on offense and kick returns. He gave up a big pass play to set up a Mobile Christian field goal on the game’s first drive and slipped with a chance on offense in the first half, but Steve Smith challenged him.

“I got on Jakari pretty hard and told him that, if he ever wanted to be a big-time player, he’d have to make a big play in a big game,” Steve Smith said.

With the game on the line, Foster faked to the outside and broke down the left seam and behind Mobile Christian’s secondary. He made a leaping catch on Hayes’ lead at the goal line.

The game-winning score came after Jason Brooks wrestled a potential touchdown pass out of Silas Thompson’s hands, just as Thompson hit the ground in the end zone.

“Before the play where he threw it to Silas, I looked at coach, and I was like, ‘Just let me run by them,’” Foster said, “He was like, ‘Just run by them,' so I did.”

Foster wasn’t the only key Piedmont defender deployed on offense. Sean Smith, a defensive end, doubled as a tight end the entire second half.

The move paid dividends quickly for Piedmont. The Bulldogs opened the third quarter with a 14-play, 64-yard drive ending in Jack Hayes’ 2-yard touchdown run to bring Piedmont within 10-7. The drive featured 12 runs, including direct-snap Wildcat runs to running back Elijah Johnson in the red zone.

Piedmont gained 115 of its 191 rushing yards in the second half.

“Ever since I was a little kid, my dad’s taught me to drive your feet into somebody’s head and put ’em on the ground, as a lineman or as a tight end or anything like that,” Sean Smith said. “That’s what I tried to do every play.

“I knew when he put me in there, they were going to come off my butt, and it was my job to seal the edge.”

Mobile Christian responded with a drive of its own, going 64 yards in six plays. Deontae Lawson’s 4-yard run on a direct snap extended the Leopards’ lead to 17-7 with 26 seconds left in the third quarter.

With Mobile Christian having to commit an extra defender against the run, however, Hayes opened the fourth quarter by launching a perfect lead down field for Austin Estes, who caught the pass and won a 40-yard foot race to complete an 81-yard play and bring Piedmont within 17-14.

A 22-yard pass to Sean Smith, another play opened by his blocking to loosen the running game, keyed Piedmont’s drive to take the lead on Hayes’ 3-yard keeper to make it 20-17 with 7:04 left.

“Being able to run the ball out of the tight end-trips (three wide receivers) and them having to bring people up on the line to stop that, allowed us to hit some big plays in the passing game in the fourth quarter,” Steve Smith said.

A kickoff out of bounds then rekick started Mobile Christian’s ensuing drive on its 43, and the Leopards made good nine plays later, on Lawson’s 1-yard direct snap on fourth down to make it 24-20 with 3:25 left.

Two big pass plays keyed Mobile Christian’s 10-0 lead at halftime … Linke’s 44-yard bomb to Toler Keigley to set up Jackson Chandler’s 27-yard field goal at 10:19 of the first quarter and Nick Ellis’ 85-yard, catch-and-run touchdown at 11:34 of the second.

Piedmont had two scoring chances in the second quarter. The Bulldogs had first and goal at Mobile Christian’s 10 but turned it over on downs after a block-in-the-back penalty backed them up. A promising drive at the end of the second quarter ran out of time and ended when Jacoby Chestang blocked Bryce Mohon’s 39-yard field goal attempt on the half’s final play.

“We went in at halftime, and we had some long faces,” Steve Smith said. “I tried to just tell them, we’re down 10-0. We’ve been down worse than that before.”

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.