High school football teaser

Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

ALEXANDRIA — A first-round playoff exit last year left Alexandria believing more could’ve been. A first-round win Friday leaves the Valley Cubs smiling about what can be.

Dakari Garrett’s 2-yard touchdown run with 6:27 to play gave Alexandria the lead, and the Valley Cubs held off Sylacauga without injured senior standout Nate McCallum 10-7.

Alexandria (8-2) advances to face Madison County, which beat Corner 21-4.

The victory comes a year after the Valley Cubs lost 18-15 to Madison Academy in the first round. That loss, in a closer-than-expected game, became a rallying point throughout the offseason.

Alexandria realized it could’ve had more. A year later, the Valley Cubs have their first playoff victory since their 2015 semifinal run, with the chance for more.

“The energy in this valley is something that you just can’t compare to nobody, or anywhere,” senior fullback/linebacker Devin Burton said.

It wasn’t just that Alexandria won, but how.

McCallum, a senior tailback/linebacker/punter and backfield tag-team partner to promising eighth-grader Ronnie Royal, sustained another ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return. He’s battled ankle issues since the Cleburne County game, on Sept. 27, and played sparingly in recent weeks, trying to mend for the playoffs.

McCallum watched the second half on crutches, with a protective boot.

“He finally got back to where he was feeling really good,” second-year Alexandria coach Todd Ginn said. “Then, just on a lead handoff to the tailback before the half, he rolled it up again.

“I hope he’s just a sprain, and we can get in there and do something with him, but our guys, they just got in there and played without him and persevered.”

Alexandria persevered over a few things. Javais McGhee had then dropped what would’ve been a touchdown pass in the first quarter, and the Valley Cubs wound up not scoring on an 11-play drive.

Alexandria also came up empty on a 13-play drive in the second quarter and later reached the Sylacauga 3-yard line, before settling for Cleat Forrest’s 22-yard field goal to bring the Valley Cubs within 7-3 at halftime.

Royal’s fumble at the Sylacauga 8 squelched another Alexandria threat in the third quarter.

It didn’t matter, because Alexandria’s defense had taken over the game. Sylacauga moved Jordan Ridgeway, who led the Aggies with 87 yards, from running back to quarterback in the second half, allowing Alexandria to play more aggressive.

It showed up in the fourth quarter, when Alexandria pumped the brakes on a 17-play Sylacauga drive, forcing Coleman Porch’s 35-yard field goal attempt. Porch, who made a 54-yarder against Munford and kicks without a tee, kicked short, and Alexandria took over on its 20.

At the urging of assistant coach Will Ginn, Todd’s younger brother, the Valley Cubs pulled out the offensive stops on the ensuing possession.

“If you could’ve listened, you would’ve heard Will tell me, he said, ‘Let’s go for the home run. We might as well go for the home run,’” Todd Ginn said.

On Alexandria’s first snap, McGhee atoned for his first-quarter drop by taking a pitch then launching a pass down field for Antonio Ross, to Sylacauga’s 45. On the second snap, Chaning Orr took a double reverse 44 yards to the 2, setting up Garrett’s touchdown run.

“Coach called a lead, and I just trusted in my teammates to get me in the end zone,” Garrett said.

Protecting a 10-7 lead, Alexandria turned to its defense again. Royal atoned for an earlier fumble but recovering after Timothy Stallworth caught then fumbled a Ridgeway pass.

Royal stayed down after the play but returned to the action after working with trainer Randy Beason for four plays. Royal ran three of the final four plays, and Alexandria ran out the clock.

Royal led Alexandria with 87 yards rushing and caught two passes for 34 more.

“The dude’s an eighth-grader,” Todd Ginn said. “My dad said it with Mac Campbell. Every once in awhile, you get lucky enough to coach a special, special dude.”

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