BY WIL CREWS
The AHSAA Class 7A No. 1-ranked Central Phenix City Red Devils went down to Opelika Friday. As the rain fell, so did the giants.
It took overtime in Bulldog Stadium, but the visiting Central fell to region foe Opelika, 17-14.
Opelika sophomore kicker Johnni Cesena kicked the game-winning, 17-yard field goal in overtime, giving the Bulldogs the win. The victory snapped Opelika’s six-game losing streak to Central, and handed the Red Devils their first region loss in two years.
“The post-game talk to the team was, ‘This can’t be the end of our season,’” said Opelika head coach Erik Speakman. “Beating Central can’t be the highlight of our season.”
Most of the contest Friday was dominated by the two defenses. In total, Central managed 180 total yards, and Opelika struggled similarly, totaling just 154. The way in which both teams went about gaining those yards on offense, however, was as dichotomous as yin and yang. Opelika — committed to the run as usual — totaled 115 yards on the ground compared to just 39 passing.
“We came in on Sunday and felt like we could get some good push up front and really run the ball, and I think that was evident,” Speakman said.
Central, in turn, rushed for just 11 yards against the vaunted Bulldog defensive line, but found success through the air, tallying 169 yards passing. Bulldogs Brenton Williams and Tyrese Pitts led the Opelika defense with eight and seven tackles, respectively.
Opelika opened the game’s scoring in the first quarter via a 6-yard touchdown run from senior running back Jakori Thornton. It was Thornton and senior running back Caden Cooper who picked up the slack for Opelika with starting running back Calvin Hughley missing the game due to injury.
“Those two guys did a great job,” Speakman said of Thornton and Cooper. “They are two of our senior leaders, two guys we have counted on for a few years. Our running back did a fantastic job tonight, and our offensive line was incredible. I think when you go back and watch, we are going to have some happy o-line coaches with that performance from those guys tonight.”
The quality start from Opelika faded as the Red Devils grew into the game. Central flipped momentum with a score in the second quarter before Opelika punched back with a touchdown — a 16-yard pass from quarterback Roman Gagliano to Cooper — in the third.
“He’s just our Swiss army knife,” Speakman said of Cooper.
The Red Devils tied the game at 14 midway through the fourth quarter and blocked a would-be game-winning field goal attempt from Opelika with 20 seconds remaining in the contest to send the teams to overtime.
“We never do [quit],” Speakman said. “The game is never over until the final whistle. Even though we messed up the field goal there trying to win it in regulation, our kids bounced back.”
Opelika got the final response in the extra period when a Bulldog interception from J.C. Perry set up Cesena for his second field goal attempt of the game — this time for the win. Cesena drilled the 21-yard kick to move Opelika to a perfect 4-0 in its first season in the top class of the AHSAA.
“We’ve been telling them all along all summer that we belong in this league,” Speakman said. “There is going to be a lot of people across the state starting to look at the Dawgs.”
Opelika returns to the gridiron Friday, Sept. 16, in a road matchup versus Prattville. The Lions have dropped back-to-back region games to Smiths Station and Dothan the last two weeks. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. CST.
“Great night by those guys and the rest of these seniors who have done a great job leading this team and having everybody in that locker room believe they can do great things,” Speakman said. “It’s so hard to beat these guys so you have to enjoy it some … but we are moving on to Prattville.”
PHOTOS BY ROBERT NOLES / THE OBSERVER