COVINGTON, Ga - The Alcovy Tigers fell behind early, but led by stout defensive play they came back to defeat the Grovetown Warriors by a score of 28-21 Thursday night in Sharp Stadium, and earning the Tigers their first region victory since 2015.
Hugs were shared, tears were shed and there was a new vibe that buzzed throughout the players, coaches and family members in the stands. Hope -- something that has departed from the Tigers program for the past few years. As everyone from the sidelines to the stands joined the team in the middle of the field to celebrate this momentous victory, it felt as if there was new life being breathed in the program.
A Gatorade-soaked Tigers head coach knows the importance of a win like this for the Tigers program, but has much higher hopes for his program than just a simple region win.
"It's important because it was the next game on our schedule," Tigers head coach Jason Dukes said. "Winning a region championship, that's what our goal is. Our goal is way beyond winning just a region game; this was just a game that was one step in accomplishing a goal that we have for our football team."
It's been a long four years since even the Tigers' last region win, which was a 15-12 win over the Lakeside Panthers on Oct. 2, 2015. Not only was this the Tigers' first region win, but it was also the Tigers' first region win since joining region 3-AAAAAA.
This game marks a victory that has been yearned for by the program for the last four years and signifies a promising future for this Tigers team.
The Tigers defense played a crucial role throughout the game, but their late play ultimately helped them break the tie and earn this victory.
Late in the fourth quarter, with 4:23 left to play, Warriors quarterback Kori Bryant attempted to pitch the ball to his running back, but the ball could not be secured and Tigers defensive end Anthony Little fell on it at the Warriors 15-yard line.
The Tigers would take over, and that drive would be capped off by a 7-yard touchdown run by Tigers quarterback M.J. Stroud at the 1:55 mark in the fourth quarter. This was one of Stroud's three rushing touchdowns on the night.
After securing the late lead, the Tigers defense, which had been formidable all night, took over. After forcing multiple fourth-down plays on the drive, the Tigers would eventually stop the Warriors on fourth-and-ten on a pass play that came one yard short of earning the crucial first down.
With just ten ticks of the clock left on the scoreboard and a seven-point lead over the visiting Warriors, the Tigers lined up in victory formation and kneeled out those remaining seconds to secure a coveted region victory.
The Tigers trailed for the majority of the game, but their tenacity on defense and hard-nosed rushing attack allowed them to come back and earn the victory.
The Tigers' tough defense was put to the test in the early stages of the game and struggles on third and long seemed as if they might be the downfall of this team.
On the first third and long of the game, The Tigers got pressure on Bryant, but he still found a way to connect with wide receiver AJ Hasan for a 50-yard touchdown pass.
The Tigers would be held to three and out on their first drive, but a big-time play by Jaquez Snell on defense would get the Tigers back in the game.
Snell picked off a pass that was tipped in the air and returned it 41 yards to the Warriors 10-yard line. From there, the Tigers offense would take over, and quarterback M.J. Stroud would run it in to tie the game at seven.
This game was of the utmost importance for the Tigers senior cornerback, and Snell knew that he needed to come up big if his team wanted to earn this region victory.
"It just jump-started the team. I knew we had a hard-fought game, so I just had to jump-start the team," Snell said. "It means a lot, working for three years and to finally get one. It means a lot for the team and for me."
This marks Snell's fourth interception of the season, and Dukes knows how important it was for the Tigers to not only earn the stop but turn the ball over and allow the offense to take over deep in the Warriors territory.
"It was huge, you know football is a game of momentum and that play kind of stemmed the tide for us momentum-wise and gave us a huge shot in the arm," Dukes said. "We kind of thrive off of him and his energy, and we're very happy with his play and the leadership he provides."
The Tigers and Warriors would trade scores in the second quarter, with the Tigers touchdown coming on a six-yard run by sophomore Tray Perry, and each team would walk into their locker rooms at halftime locked up at 14. The Warriors would quickly jump out to a 21-14 lead with 7:14 left to play in the third quarter.
The Tigers' outstanding defense would make sure to thwart the Warriors offense for the remainder of the game and kept them off the scoreboard.
With 11:05 left to play in the game, The Tigers offense would take over and score quickly with 9:27 left to play. It was Stroud again who scored the game-tying touchdown and set up the Tigers for a chance to win this pivotal game.
Stroud was outstanding in the rushing game all night, leading his team with 115 rushing yards on 15 carries and three touchdowns. Stroud had every reason to take pride in his play and hold the spotlight, but he humbly shined the light on his teammates' play, leading to his remarkable performance.
"My line and my extra blockers did a great job of giving me good blocks so that I could get to the next level and score," Stroud said. "I haven't been here that long, but I know it meant more to the people in the community and the people that have been in this program for three or four years, so I just wanted to do this for them."
Stroud's performance on the ground was impressive, but he knows that the sky is the limit for the Tigers offense once he becomes more effective as a passer.
"When I learn how to get the ball down the field more effectively, can't nobody stop us then," Stroud said.
Dukes was very pleased with Stroud's performance and the progression he has made since making the switch from receiver to the Tigers starting quarterback, but there's one other area in Stroud's game that has stood out to the first-year coach.
"We're very happy with his progress, so hats off to M.J. (Stroud)," Dukes said. "His leadership has started to take leaps and bounds, and in the quarterback position, a lot of people don't give enough credit to that simple fact of leadership so yes, he's doing great in the run game, yes, we still have some stuff to do in the passing game, but from a leadership standpoint, I couldn't be happier."
The Tigers will rely on Stroud's play and leadership as they drive deeper into their region schedule. Earning the first region win for the first time in four years is a huge step forward for the program.
Dukes knows the magnitude of this win for not only the team and its players, but also for the fans and community that follow the program. He does not, however, want to rest his laurels on this win, but knows they have much work to do if they hope to achieve their goals.
"We got to go back to practice," Dukes said. "We're not perfect. Our goal is to constantly strive for perfection, and are we ever going to get there? No, but if we keep striving for that, we're going to be a pretty good football team."
The Tigers have the next 48 hours to celebrate this huge victory, but after that, they will have to get back to work. As they strive to keep their perfect region record intact, they will head out on the road to face the undefeated Lakeside Panthers (4-0) on Friday, October 18th.