You can't accuse the Clay Central Volunteers of making it easy. But they most definitely made it.
Central's Javon Wood and J.D. McNealey tackled Pleasant Grove quarterback Zyquez Perryman at the 1-yard line as time ran out, and the Vols secured their second straight 5A state championship with a heart-pounding 31-27 victory.
The win gives Danny Horn his eighth career state title, to tie him with Hoover's Josh Niblett for most ever by a non-AISA coach in Alabama history.
The Vols gave him that distinction after a game in which neither team could ever quite put the other away. Central trailed 13-10 at halftime, but that in itself was a small victory after the Vols' defense kept Perryman and the Pleasant Grove offense out of the end zone after they had a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line inside a minute to play in the half.
Central appeared to seize control of the game in the third quarter with a pair of impressive touchdown runs by J.D. McNealey and Quentin Knight that gave the Volunteers a 24-13 lead.
But Pleasant Grove closed the gap with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Perryman to Christian Lewis to cut the lead to 24-20. Then Pleasant Grove intercepted a Central pass on the next to last play of the third quarter to set up another Perryman touchdown pass. That wiped out Central's lead and put Pleasant Grove ahead 27-24.
The Vols appeared to be fading under the rush of the Spartans' newfound momentum as Pleasant Grove forced a three-and-out on the ensuing Central possession.
But the Vols got new life when Xavier Hill fumbled the punt return, and Elisha McNeil recovered the ball in Pleasant Grove territory.
The Vols quickly moved down the field and reclaimed the lead on McNealey's 1-yard run with 7:25 left in the game.
The teams traded scoreless possessions before Pleasant Grove took over on its 20-yard line with two timeouts and 2:48 left in the game.
Perryman quickly put the Spartans on the move, as they reached the Central 10-yard line with eight seconds remaining, having exhausted all of their timeouts.
On the final play Perryman dropped back to pass, was pressured out of the pocket and took off up the left hashmark. But Wood and McNealey were there to cut him off and bring him down just shy of the goal line as time expired.
Knight was a force on the ground for the Vols all night as he finished with 181 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. McNealey was just as effective with 79 yards and two scores on just 11 carries as Central racked up 278 yards on the ground as a team.
That offset the 316 yards and four touchdowns that Perryman threw for.
Both teams scored four touchdowns in the game, but the difference for Central was the leg of kicker Clay Yates. He made all four of his extra point attempts and added a 22-yard field goal late in the first half.
Central finishes the season with a record of 13-2. The Vols are now 25-5 in two seasons under Horn and have yet to lose a playoff game in that time.
Lood for full coverage of Clay Central's 5A state championship in next week's print edition of the Randolph Leader.