Shelby County wins region opener in return home for Ellison

By RICKY RUSTON | Special to the Reporter

COLUMBIANA – In front of a capacity crowd, the Wildcats claimed their first win of the season 35-22 over the Sipsey Valley Bears.

Friday night was important and full of firsts. First home game of 2021, first Class 5A, Region 3 game and the first time new Wildcats’ head coach Zeb Ellison was back under the lights where it all started. However, this time, it was leading the program that once led him as a player.

Since leaving the Wildcats in 2000 as a senior linebacker, his journey back to SCHS hasn’t been in the equation of a straight line between two points, but it is proof all roads lead home.

“Being here for the first time as the head coach, in the stadium, in front of the fans, community, family and friends, there are no words to explain it,” Ellison said following the game.  “Extremely grateful and happy to be here.”

Sipsey Valley came ready to spoil Ellison’s homecoming, however.

Two plays into their first series, Bears’ quarterback Ryan Barger connected with Dalton Bailey on a touchdown strike from the Wildcats’ 26-yard line. Barger then hit Wyatt Bailey on the 2-point conversion to claim the early 8-0 lead just 42 seconds into the game.

After a high snap on the first play from scrimmage for the Wildcats, the Bears were right back in business at their own 33-yard line. Four plays later, Barger hit Bailey in stride on a quick slant, just outside the red zone, to go up 14-0 after the failed 2-point conversion attempt.

On the ensuing kick-off, the Wildcats’ return was muffed and recovered by the Bears at the SCHS 43-yard line, as the early woes continued for Shelby County.

The game was quickly slipping, and Micah McSwain answered a call with an interception at his team’s own 15-yard line. It stalled an important drive and kept the Wildcats in the game as first quarter closed.

Senior quarterback Connor Aderholt then delivered for his team on the first series of the second quarter.

He led his offensive squad to the scoreboard when they needed it most. Facing third-and-4, he found Bradley Horton on a screen for a 15-yard conversion. Then, on third-and-3 from the 20-yard line, he bolted 5 yards for the first down  The next play, he went for pay dirt around left end in for a 3-yard scamper into the end zone.  After a failed PAT, the Wildcats trailed 14-6 with 6:30 left until intermission.

On the ensuing Wildcats’ drive from their own 30-yard line, Aderholt converted another big third-down conversion with a dart to Noah Reed on the left sideline.

On the 11th play of the drive, a call around left guard had Aderholt dashing in from the Bears’ 5-yard line and completing the 2-pt conversion one play later to even the score.

Then, just inside 30 seconds left before half, Seth Hall grabbed one of his three interceptions of the night going into the half.

On the Wildcats’ second possession of the second half, Aderholt found Coby Moore over the top for a 36-yard scoring strike. After the successful PAT, the Wildcats had claimed the lead 21-14 midway through the third quarter.

But Sipsey Valley wasn’t down and out yet despite the 21 unanswered scored by the Wildcats.

Following an interception on deflected ball on the next Shelby County possession, the Bears went to work at their own 44-yard line where they quickly found the end zone on a five-play drive that saw Barger connect with Bailey from the 4-yard line. Bailey then bolted around right end on a jet sweep for the 2-point conversion to put the Bears back on top 22-21 with 2:37 left in the third quarter.

But that was the final time the Bears found the end zone.

Momentum quickly shifted back to the Wildcats on the ensuing kickoff when Matthew Pearson took a squib kick 63 yards to the house for a touchdown to put Shelby County on top 27-22 late in the third quarter.

Eight minutes into the fourth, following a Bailey fumble, Aderholt shook a Sipsey Valley defender at the left hash and bolted to the end zone for a 44-yard scoring run to really put the pressure on the Bears. He then found Pearson in the flat for a 2-pt conversion that put the Wildcats on top 35-22 with half of a quarter left to play.

The Wildcats defense then sealed the win thanks to Hall picking up interceptions on back-to-back drives in the clutch.

The Wildcats’ offense rolled up 367 total yards in the outing with 238 on the ground and 129 through the air. Aderholt finished with 161 yards rushing with three touchdowns and went 12-of-20 with a touchdown and interception through the air.

Defensively, Horton led the Wildcats with seven tackles, while Hall added five tackles with his three interceptions.

“Our guys continue to fight. They fought tonight.  We have to protect the football better as we go forward, we’ve got to play better defensively,” Ellison said. “Mistakes are hurting us right now, but we found a way to go ahead there as the fourth quarter rolled on. Following last week, I think we got better…we were more physical tonight, but just aren’t where we need to be right now. If we continue to show up and keep working, we’ll get there.”

The Wildcats travel to Selma next Friday night for another Class 5A, Region 3 game.