By Stephen Bubalo
The Grain Valley defense didn't waste much time in making a big stand and quickly setting the tone in Friday night's home game against Sedalia Smith-Cotton.
In the first 7 minutes, 30 seconds of the game the Eagles defense came up with a fourth-down stop and an interception return for a touchdown, taking an early 14-0 lead as they put together an impressive defensive display in a 37-14 win.
“It was really key to get a good stop on that first drive,” Eagles linebacker Mason Smith said of the fourth-and-three stop to start the game. “That gave us all the momentum. We needed to set the tone at the beginning.”
While Grain Valley's defense was solid all game long, the first half was especially strong, as they made two stops on fourth down, recovered two fumbles and intercepted two passes.
One each of the fumble recoveries and interceptions went for touchdowns.
“Those build confidence and get us more pumped up,” senior linebacker Cody Hale said.
Hale and Smith were the two defensive players to find the end zone, with Hale's coming first during that tone-setting opening quarter.
The Tigers (1-3) tried to run a quick slant on second down – a play that had been getting the best of Hale over the course of the week – and he stepped right in front of the pass and rumbled 56 yards for the score.
“That play in practice was getting me over and over and over,” Hale said. “I just had to stay back, stay back. I was surprised, too.”
Smith-Cotton would answer with a score to cut the lead to 14-7 before a wild few minutes ensued.
Grain Valley threw an interception to end the first quarter but a stop by the defense led to a snap over the punter's head, leaving the Eagles with great field position. But they squandered it after a fumble on the 1-yard line gave the ball back to the Tigers.
Finally, the madness came to an end when Smith caught a fumble in mid-air with the Tigers deep in their own territory. He would find the end zone for a 22-7 lead.
“Cody and I hit the gap, the ball just came out, I grabbed it and started hauling for dear life,” Smith said. “It felt good to get my first touchdown as a varsity player.”
The defensive touchdowns were the highlights of the night, but just as important was the defense’s ability for the most part to shut down the Tigers' running game, which features multiple tailbacks on nearly every play.
“The linebackers have to stay at home and read the linemen,” Eagles head coach Jimmy Tucker said. “Everyone has their responsibility. You have to do your job.”
The offense, despite a slow second half, made a handful of big plays to take advantage of what the defense was able to do.
Sophomore quarterback Kellen Holland had a couple of interceptions but made up for it with a 19-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-10 on the opening drive. He also threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Ramirez in the second quarter as well as a 38-yard strike to Ramirez in the fourth quarter to set up a 10-yard scoring run from Landon Farmer.
“He's going to make some mistakes but he's also going to make a lot of good plays,” Tucker said of his young quarterback. “He's going to keep growing and maturing.”
As are the Eagles, who moved to 3-1 overall, as they have recovered nicely after a tough week 1 loss – 46-42 – to Savannah.
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves after the defeat, which included two late turnovers, the Eagles have outscored their last three opponents 107-37.
“We're progressing and learning each game,” Hale said. “We want more.”
Added Tucker: “We've shown a lot of resolve. We made the plays we had to tonight.”