The rain started to fall in earnest about the time Smiths Station quarterback Jerrell Gilmore’s desperation heave on fourth-and-23 was intercepted by McGill-Toolen’s Chris Knowles.
The play gave the Yellow Jackets (12-1) a 28-21 win in a highly contested showdown between two Alabama’s best teams on Friday at Panthers Stadium in the Class 6A state quarterfinals. With the loss, Smiths Station’s (10-3) season ended a tad short of its ultimate goal.
As fans, coaches, cheerleaders and players slowly walked the field, the rain mingled with a few tears on the disappointed Panthers’ faces. Coach Mark Rose stood surrounded by his players and made sure they understood the loss didn’t equate to failure.
“This is the best group of guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to be around,” Rose told his team. “You guys turned this program into one of the best in the state of Alabama. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
While the Panthers fought as hard as any week this season, they were simply outmatched in the end by McGill-Toolen running back Romarius Smith. Smith scored the go-ahead touchdown with, a 9-yard scamper, with 7:13 remaining in the game. It was just one of 29 carries, but it was perhaps the biggest. On those 29 carries, he rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown. He also had a 14-yard touchdown grab that put the Yellow Jackets ahead 21-14 in the third quarter.
Rose said his ability to run the ball and his defense’s inability to stop him turned the game for the Yellow Jackets.
“Our guys were in the right place on a lot of occasions, but he was able to reverse field or spin out of a tackle,” he said. “He made things real tough on us.”
Smiths Station had the early momentum in the game, holding McGill-Toolen to just a couple field goals early on while putting together two scoring drives of its own.
DeVante Marshall capped off a 54 yard drive with a 12-yard run to put Smiths Station ahead 7-3 to open the second quarter. After McGill-Toolen missed a field goal on its ensuing drive, Smiths Station drove 80 yards for a score, this time a 24-yard reception by Marshall. Gilmore was rushed on the play, but managed to get the ball out and Marshall hauled it in by his fingertips and trotted into the end zone to put the Panthers head 14-3.
Momentum swung when the Yellow Jackets cut the lead to 14-6, intercepted a pass a couple drives later and drove 67 yards for a score heading into the half.
Coming out of the half, the Yellow Jackets added another score on Smiths’ 14-yard reception to go ahead 21-14.
Smiths Station got back in it on Marshall’s third touchdown of the game, a 5-yard pass reception, but McGill-Toolen responded with a 66-yard drive and Smith’s second touchdown to take the insurmountable 28-21 lead.
Smiths Station head a chance on its final drive, getting the ball into McGill-Toolen territory, but was backed into a fourth-and-long situation and forced to throw long. The pass was intercepted and the Panthers’ magical season came to an end.
“I told them I was proud of them,” Rose said when asked what he said to his team. “They remained loyal after last season when we were one of the best teams in Alabama and didn’t make the playoffs.”
McGill-Toolen will face the winner of Auburn and Carver-Montgomery in the semifinals. Smiths Station’s season comes to an end. It was the team’s best finish since a quarterfinals trip in 1996.