Pelham secures playoff spot

Pelham’s defense wrested the ball away near the end zone enough times to beat Gardendale 21-7 and secure a playoff spot.

Pelham forced three turnovers, two in the red zone, and endured a 23-play Gardendale drive that ended without points.

Junior Ryan Williams cushioned a 13-7 lead with a 38-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, relaxing an anxious homecoming crowd with 6:51 left in the game.

“We came up with big play after big play. We kind of bent but didn’t break, and fortunately for us, we came out here with a win,” Pelham head coach Brett Burnett said. “Our kids gutted it out. We had some big turnovers when they were deep in our territory that kind of kept them out, and fortunately for us, it went our way tonight.”

Gardendale got the ball on its own 20 with 11:50 left in the second quarter after senior Daniel Jackson kicked a 30-yard field goal to put Pelham up 13-0. The Rockets converted three fourth downs, sauntered down the field and nearly evaporated the entire quarter, but senior quarterback Conner McCain’s pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-4 and the Panthers regained possession at their own 5 with 42 seconds until halftime.

Gardendale got the ball first in the second half and senior Robert Hilliard scored on a 7-yard touchdown run for the Rockets’ only points.

Gardendale (3-4, 2-4) turned the ball over in Pelham territory twice in the second half and Hilliard fumbled at the goal line in the first quarter. Williams finished with 138 total yards, most of them in the second half, and the Panthers’ lead held.

“At first, I wasn’t too sure about how good we were going to do today in the locker room,” said junior linebacker Nigel Terrell, who finished with 13 tackles and a sack. “At practice, we were kind of flat, but we made do. Tonight we made plays, we had the intensity in the locker room, so we came out when we had to.”

Pelham’s defense held opponents scoreless for 11 straight quarters before Hilliard’s touchdown.

The Panthers last allowed points in the third quarter against Vestavia and have given up 7 points in their last three games.

Hilliard rushed for 180 yards on 25 carries, leaving Barnett and Pelham still searching for a way to counter power running attacks.

“He’s a great running back. He was faster than I thought he’d be. He was flying. He came out early and had that big, long run. We’re very fortunate to get out of here with a win,” Burnett said.

Pelham didn’t make the playoffs last year and hasn’t played in a competitive Class 6A, Region 6 in two years. Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook beat the Panthers by wide margins this year, but Pelham (5-2, 5-2) has beaten everyone else, guaranteeing them a playoff spot.

“We’ve been in the playoffs every year since I’ve been here except last year. It’s something that we just expect to do,” Burnett said. “I don’t want to act like it’s a big deal, but traditionally this region is a very competitive region, and it’s a big step to get to the playoffs.”