The Columbus Lions put their championship hopes in good hands Monday night.
Gerald Gales caught only three passes, but each was for a touchdown as the Lions advanced to the second round of the American Indoor Football Association playoffs with a 45-36 victory over the Fayetteville Guard at the Columbus Civic Center.
Gales said he expected catches to be tough to come by at his middle receiver position after watching film of the Guard but saw his opportunity when Fayetteville diverted from its usual formation.
“I didn’t expect to have a big game, actually,” Gales said. “… But then they went to man-to-man coverage on me, and that’s when I knew I was going to be able to do something.”
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The Guard (8-8) went ahead 9-0 on a 1-yard Shawn Withy-Allen run and a safety in the first quarter before the Lions registered their first points on an 18-yard Carlos Martinez field goal. Columbus defensive back Damian Daniels then gave the Lions (12-3) a 10-9 lead midway through the second period, when he returned a missed field goal 50 yards for a touchdown.
Fayetteville went back in front again, this time on a 7-yard Withy-Allen pass to Quincy Prentice, but the Lions took a 20-16 lead into halfwhen after Martinez hit a 45-yard field goal and Gales scored on a 6-yard pass from Spitzer within the final minute before the break.
“In the first half, we came out trying to do some things we didn’t do a lot this season,” Lions coach Jason Gibson said. “We tried to outsmart ourselves. In the second half, we just got back to playing our style of football, doing what we do best.”
Gales scored his second touchdown of the night on a 25-yard pass from Spitzer on the first offensive play of the second half.
Guard fullback Wilmont Perry scored on a 1-yard run about three minutes later but evened the gap again later in the third quarter, when he allowed Lions linebacker Justen Rivers to strip the ball from him and return it 35 yards for a touchdown.
“I saw (Perry) was going for a fullback pass, and so I just took it,” said Rivers, who pulled the ball from the fullback’s hands and ran it back untouched. “I was just running downhill, full speed.”
Fayetteville’s Walter Ford posted the final third-quarter score on a 21-yard Withy-Allen pass with 20 seconds remaining in the period before the Lions posted the next three scores to lead by as many as 15.
Martinez hit a 23-yard field goal about five minutes into the final quarter, Gales scored for the third time, this one on an 18-yard catch, and Martinez put one more point on the board with an uno.
Martinez was 5-for-5 on point-after attempts Monday.
Prentice scored on a 7-yard pass from Withy-Allen with 38 seconds remaining in the game, but the conversion and following onside kick attempt failed, allowing the Lions to run out the clock with two short runs from Spitzer.
With the win, Columbus advanced to host North Division champion Reading Express. The game will be played Monday at the Columbus Civic Center.
“I can guarantee you I’ll be preparing for the next week starting tonight,” Gibson said after the game. “Maybe I’ll take 15 minutes and relax right now. Maybe 20, but that’s it.”
Monday at Civic Center
Fayetteville 9 7 14 6 - 36
Columbus 0 20 14 11 - 45
F—Shawn Withy-Allen 1 run (Brandon Gilbert kick), 6:56
C—Carlos Martinez 18 field goal, 10:52
C—Damian Daniels 50 kick return, 6:56
F—Quincy Prentice 7 pass from Withy-Allen, (Gilbert kick), 2:57
C—Martinez 45 field goal, :55
C—Gerald Gales 6 from Todd Spitzer (Martinez kick), :06
C—Gales 25 pass from Spitzer (Martinez kick), 13:49
F—Wilmont Perry 1 run (Gilbert kick), 10:07
C—Justen Rivers 35 fumble return (Martinez kick), 3:23
F—Walter Ford 21 pass from Withy-Allen (Gilbert kick), :20
C—Martinez 23 field goal, 9:58
C—Gales 18 pass from Spitzer (Martinez kick), 1:39
C—Martinez uno, 1:39
F—Prentice 7 pass from Withy-Allen (Gilbert kick), :38