by Steve Irvine
HOOVER — Working out some kinks was one of the objectives for the Spain Park High football team its regular season opener on Friday night. The Jags did just that and came complete with an added bonus – a hard-fought 31-19 win over a talented Gadsden City team.
“You want to play a jamboree, just to get the kinks out,” said Spain Park head coach Shawn Raney. “But, if you can get a game like this, where you get the kinks out and win, you’re way ahead of the game. Now, we got an off week in week five. We’ll need that time to rest. It’s a gamble you take as a coach. Fortunate we won it, so it paid off.”
It wasn’t a surprise that senior D’Arie Johnson and junior Jalen Henderson were right in the middle of the success on Friday night. Johnson gained 113 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns. Henderson bulled his way to 108 yards on 20 carries.
That type of running tandem, especially when they get stronger as the game goes on, should help win a lot of ball games.
“The (Gadsden City) defense kind of tired out, which our defense would have, too. It’s so humid tonight,” Raney said. “To be able to substitute those guys in, to keep them fresh, that’s huge for us. We’re very fortunate to have those guys.”
Raney was also pleased with the play of senior quarterback Braxton Barker, who threw for 141 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 36 yards. However, the Jags may not have won the game without the contribution of junior Mason Pronk, who came on when Barker went down with cramps and threw a touchdown pass to Kenyon Hines.
With all that said, nothing came easy for the Jags, beginning with an opening kickoff onside kick by Gadsden City, which was recovered by the Titans at the Jags 46-yard line. Four plays later, on fourth down, quarterback Ryan Sparks hit Jamontavius Woods with a short pass, and the talented receiver turned it into a 42-yard touchdown.
Spain Park came back to tie the game on its first series when Barker directed a seven-play, 76-yard drive that culminated in a 9-yard touchdown pass to M.J. Rogers. The Jags took a 14-7 lead with 10:08 left in the half when a marathon 17-play, 97-yard drive, which came after a defensive stand, ended with Johnson bursting 17 yards for the score.
Gadsden City was able to cut into the lead late in the second quarter, when Jaelyn Fleming got wide open in the middle and scored on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Starks. The extra point failed, leaving the Jags ahead, 14-13, but the Titans took the lead on the opening drive of the second half. The touchdown came on a 5-yard pass to 215-pound running back Jamontez Webb. A two-point run failed, but the Titans still led 19-14.
Three plays later, Barker had to leave the game because of leg cramps. Pronk calmly led the Jags on the final 34 yards of a 73-yard drive. On third-and-goal, Pronk connected with Hines on a 7-yard touchdown pass to give Spain Park a 21-19 lead. Two plays after that, Pronk and the Spain Park offense were back on the field following a Rob Cook fumble recovery at the Titans’ 17-yard line. Pronk didn’t get the offense into the end zone, but Cole Starr built the lead to 24-19 with a 21-yard field goal.
“He comes prepared every week, and you could see it tonight,” Raney said of Pronk, the program’s junior varsity quarterback. “We were calling some plays deep in the playbook, and there is no question he knew them.”
Barker came back in for the next series, and the Jags were able to pad the lead. Johnson scored on an 11-yard run with 10:46 left to close the scoring.
“I’m just proud of our guys,” Raney said. “We’ve got a bunch of different guys than we had playing last year, but they find a way to win. I think that’s a tribute to the program and the coaches coaching them. I’m just excited how we finished the game.”