Smallwood’s final-minute touchdown lifts Spain Park to tight win against Calera

Published 12:28 am Saturday, August 20, 2022

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

HOOVER – All offseason, first-year head coach Tim Vakakes and his coaching staff preached 12 rounds. On night one, the Jags needed all 12 rounds in a final-minute comeback victory against the Calera Eagles.

After the Eagles broke a 7-7 tie with a field goal to put the first points on the board since the first quarter with 3:16 left, Spain Park got the ball back and needed to march 70 yards for the win.

With only one first down to that point in the second half and trailing 10-7, the Jags turned to their coach’s words of fighting for 12 rounds and put together the final blow.

The Jags quickly faced a third-and-7, and looked to be stopped, but a 5-yard facemask on Calera prevented fourth down and instead set up third-and-2.

Dakarai Shanks then ran for 5 yards and a first down before quarterback Evan Smallwood hit Logan Brownlee for 23 yards. That was all the spark the offense and Smallwood needed.

He hit Reggie Jackson for 12 yards shortly after, which set up first-and-10 from the 11-yard line.

Two plays later, on third-and-11, Smallwood felt pressure off his right side, took off and found a hole that led to an easy 7-yard touchdown run that became the game winner in a 14-10 victory.

“I knew we had to come up with a big play,” he said. “I got pressured around the edge so I stepped up in the pocket and I saw a lane to go, so I went and got a good block from my receiver George (Gilbert) to get me in the end zone.”

It was a thrilling finish to a game that was a physical and defensive battle for the majority of the game.

“We just started making plays,” Vakakes said of the 70-yard game-winning drive. “They did a really good job all night defensively, and we couldn’t break loose and couldn’t make plays. That last drive, we started making some plays and Evan Smallwood was the answer. He was the difference. I’m proud of him. He’s a level-headed kid. He’s the heartbeat of this team. The kids love him and he never panics. He stays even-keeled at all times. I’m glad he’s our leader.”

Early in the game, it looked like those same fireworks seen late were going to be seen throughout.

On the first play of the game, it looked like Calera was going to have its way against a Spain Park defense that has struggled the last several years.

Starting at the 15-yard line, Preston Stokes took the first snap and hit Braylyn Farrington on a quick slant. Farrington then sped away from Spain Park’s defense for an 85-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead with 9:56 left in the first half.

That, however, became Calera’s only score of the half in what became a defensive bout in the first two quarters.

The Eagles also showed why their defense has high expectations this season with an impressive first half themselves.

Spain Park, however, won the field-position battle in the first half and was able to capitalize late in the opening quarter.

Facing third-and-10 from the 25-yard line, quarterback Evan Smallwood hit Dakarai Shanks for a screen pass that went 25 yards for a touchdown to even the score at 7-7 with 41.4 seconds left in the opening quarter.

From there, the two defenses started trading shots.

Spain Park had more chances inside Calera territory, but the Eagles stepped up each time and never let the Jags jump in front, leading to a 7-7 tie at the break.

The stalemate continued into the second half as there was one combined first down until Calera’s second to last drive of the game.

The Eagles didn’t have a first down until back-to-back pass interferences led to first downs. Then, Farrington picked up a 24-yard catch to set up first-and-goal from the 6-yard line.

Calera, however, went backwards from there. A fumble on first down, a false start and an underthrown pass to a wide open receiver led to fourth and goal from the 15.

TJ Hernandez was able to step up and nail the 26-yard field goal to give Calera a 10-7 advantage with just more than three minutes to play, but it wasn’t enough due to Spain Park’s late heroics.

“It was a rough three-and-a-half quarters, but that last play, first game with the new jumbotron, a new coach, it ranks pretty high,” Smallwood said. “That was pretty special.”

As for Vakakes, he was proud of the defensive effort, and he hopes his team took the right steps in the process of learning how to win.

“You have to play defense and have good special teams,” he said. “Our strength is our defense. We knew that. The held us in it enough where one or two plays at the end was the difference. I’m proud of them. They have to learn how to win. Nobody can do it for them. Nobody can just wiggle their nose and start winning. You have to know how to win. Hopefully tonight is step one. We have to keep going. It only gets harder, but hopefully they learned a bit about each other tonight.”

Spain Park travels to Briarwood next week, while Calera will host Chelsea as the two teams will play their second straight game against a county opponent.