Spain Park downs Pelham to end 2023 season with 5th straight win

Published 11:56 pm Thursday, November 2, 2023

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

HOOVER – A big night in all facets of the game helped the Spain Park Jaguars finish off the 2023 high school football season with a fifth consecutive win in a 39-0 shutout victory against county foe Pelham on Thursday, Nov. 2.

The Jaguars used two big pass plays from Brock Bradley to Jonathan Bibbs in the first half to gain control and then pulled away steadily from there with an explosive night after a scoreless opening quarter.

Spain Park head coach Tim Vakakes was grateful to his senior class for the effort they poured in during the second half of the season to move the program in the right direction with a 7-3 season.

“Thank you,” Vakakes said of his message to the seniors. “These seniors, for the past three years combined, got nine wins at Spain Park. And in their final year, they got seven in one year. I thank them for caring about Spain Park and caring about each other.” 

Vakakes said the team built off of last year’s senior class to help move into a positive direction, but this year’s group has taken the next step.

“I think last year’s senior class set the foundation on what it takes, but I think this senior class moved the needle,” he said. “We talked all year about moving the needle. They’ll always go down as the group that moved the needle. I love them and I’ll miss them.”

And the team played like they were trying to move the needle with a passionate and physical mindset from start to finish.

Early in the game, however, the two teams looked like two that were playing their first cold game of the season as both struggled to find their footing offensively in the chilly weather.

It led to five straight punts to open the game, but Spain Park showed early hope with a strong drive that was eventually halted by a personal foul leading to one of the punts.

After forcing Pelham’s third punt of the half, however, the Jags got the ball back and the connection of Bradley and Bibbs took off.

On the ensuing drive, Bradley hit Bibbs for a 75-yard touchdown strike that put Spain Park in front 7-0 early in the second quarter after a scoreless opening quarter.

The Jags then forced a turnover on downs to get the ball back near midfield, which led to a big 32-yard run from Derick Shanks to set up first-and-goal.

Spain Park looked poised to add to the lead, but the Panthers stepped up with a goal line stand at the 2-inch line on fourth-and-goal, leading to a turnover on downs.

On third-and-7, Pelham freshman quarterback Dylan Smith hit CJ Tolbert for a 94-yard pass that set up the Panthers with first-and-goal from the Spain Park 3-yard line.

Needing an answer, the Panthers went backward on the first two plays and then fumbled on third down, leading to an eventual recovery by Spain Park.

That, to Vakakes, was the key moment of the first half that showed the effort and fight his team came into the game with.

“Right before the half, when they hit that fade on us, our kid didn’t quit,” Vakakes said of the deep pass play. “He got beat, but he got up and chased him down. We held them out of the end zone and then got the ball back. That shows the fight of our kids. It meant something to him to get up and chase to keep them off the scoreboard. He got beat, but he didn’t give up. Little things like that shows us and our community that we’re moving this thing forward.”

The Jags wasted no time capitalizing on getting the ball back, as Bradley hit Bibbs for an 81-yard touchdown pass a play later, giving that duo their second touchdown strike of 75 yards or more in the half and the Jaguars a 13-0 lead going into the half after the missed PAT.

With that momentum leading into the second half, the Jags were able to steadily pull away as Pelham never could get anything going offensively.

Spain Park capitalized on a failed fake punt early in the third quarter, which eventually led to a 3-yard touchdown run from Shanks to make it 19-0 with 6:09 left in the third.

Shortly after, the Jags got the ball back and scored on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Bradley to Reggie Jackson, who spun out of two tackles and powered his way to the end zone for a 26-0 lead late in the third quarter.

The Jaguars then intercepted a pass on the ensuing drive and Shanks quickly reeled off a 50-yard run that ultimately set up a short touchdown run from Dakarai Shanks to make it 32-0 with 10:45 to play.

Spain Park then capped off the scoring with 4:09 left when freshman running back CJ Cowley went 14 yards to the end zone to cap off a special drive and cement the 39-0 shutout victory.

Bradley finished with 245 yards and three touchdowns passing for the Jaguars, while Derick Shanks totaled 150 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Vakakes said the end to the season has set up a positive offseason for the Jags leading up to the 2024 season.

“It’s bright,” he said of the future. “We got to seven wins this year, that doesn’t mean next year we start at seven and try to get eight, we have to redo it. We’re just going to have to keep being consistent. Our kids and parents are responding well and we’re going to keep pushing the needle and win championships here.”

Vakakes added that this year’s players and their leadership is what has changed the culture for the future of the program.