Spain Park closed out its season by whipping Pelham 35-14 on Thursday at Ned Bearden Stadium, spoiling the Panthers’ homecoming in the process.
The win improved the Class 7A Jaguars’ record to 3-7 in Tim Vakakes’ first season and dropped Pelham to 5-5. The Panthers will host Northridge next week to open the Class 6A state playoffs.
The Jaguars scored on the opening possession of the night when senior Evan Smallwood scored on a quarterback keeper. Pelham answered when Clayton Mains found Kamari Hollis for a 7-yard TD pass to knot the score.
Spain Park built a 21-7 lead heading into halftime, but it wasn’t until sophomore defensive back Arnold Bush stepped in front of a slant pass from Mains and returned the interception for a touchdown with 2 minutes to play in the third quarter that the game felt out of reach.
“(The receiver) did a little slant route, and I’m supposed to be behind him,” Bush said. “All I see is the ball coming over and I get nervous. I bobbled it and when I got it, all I saw was blockers.”
First-year head coach Vakakes, who came to Spain Park from Jackson-Olin, said he was proud that the Jaguars’ seniors got to go out with a win.
“I’m happy for our seniors,” Vakakes said. “It didn’t go as well as we wanted it to go and I felt like we had a chance to be a good team. We just couldn’t put it together. I wish I could have done something different earlier, made some different decisions to give our kids a better chance. I feel like we have a pretty good little team, but we waited until tonight to play well.”
Spain Park’s defense hurried Mains into three interceptions, including Bush’s pick-6.
Pelham was missing several players who were out with flu-like symptoms, according to first-year coach Mike Vickery.
“Hats off to Spain Park,” Vickery said. “They came out to compete in the last game of the year and they did and that’s what you expect a well-coached team to do.”
Play of the game: Smallwood hit sophomore Reggie Jackson on the left side of the field for an 80-yard touchdown pass with 9:02 left in the game to put the nail in the coffin for Pelham’s hopes of a comeback. “Coach dialed up a great play, and the corner stayed down,” Smallwood said. “I hit Reggie over the top for a touchdown. It was my last play, and it felt good to come off the field knowing that was my last play.”
Stat sheet: Pelham actually ran more offensive plays than Spain Park (59-52) and managed a pair of sustained drives in the fourth quarter. One 13-play drive resulted in no points after a failed fourth-down conversion try at the Spain Park 20-yard-line. The next drive, a 15-play march, was capped with a 5-yard touchdown run from Ra-Sen Martin.
They said it: “The defense played well tonight. We talked about it all year: We don’t get a lot of takeaways. We’ve been pretty good even without getting turnovers, but tonight they did it.” — Vakakes
“These kids played their tails off. They faced adversity all week and they faced it and played through it. They didn’t flinch. We know exactly what’s ahead of us, and we’ve got to go to work.” —Vickery