He just looked at the faces of his players who knew what was at stake and knew everything was going to be all right.
The Thunder then went out in front of its home crowd and dominated the fourth quarter, pulling away from a tie game to beat Coosa Christian 35-27 to claim the school’s first-ever ASHAA playoff berth.
The Thunder (6-3, 4-3) earned the No. 4 seed from Class 1A, Region 6 and will play Region 5 champion Marion County in the first round. The smallest football-playing school in the state association, a member since 2002-03, had finally taken the big step.
“It is a big step for us,” said Miller, the coach through all of the Thunder’s incarnations as a football program. “We needed to make that step of getting into the playoff, and it’s a historical thing for these guys to get that goal accomplished. That’ll be important to them for a long, long time.”
The situation couldn’t have been more storybook. The entire game was do-or-die. The winner was going to the playoffs and the loser was going to play out the string next week.
The teams played like it was a playoff game and the intensity grew as they entered the fourth quarter tied 21-21.
Then the Thunder took over. It controlled the ball for nearly the entire first nine minutes of the quarter, opening a 35-21 lead. After Coosa (4-5, 4-3) scored with 2:40 to go to keep up the pressure, JCA recovered the onsides kick then ran out of the clock.
“The fourth quarter really was do-or-die,” Miller said. “I really saw determination in the eyes that made me feel good about our chances. We really wanted to win the game and I think they laid everything on the field. They left it all out there. It paid off.”
The Thunder had to work for it. JCA used a 15-play drive to score the go-ahead touchdown with 4:47 to play, but needed four cracks from inside the 1 to find the end zone. Dylan McGuffie finally found pay dirt off the left side after Coosa stuffed quarterback Matthew Crook three times up the middle.
“It was definitely frustrating because we were so close, but we knew we had to do and we knew we could do it,” Crook said. “We really wanted it and would do anything for one extra game this senior year. We gave it our all.”
After the touchdown, Crook slid under Coosa upback Kyllan Smith to recover the onsides kick. Three plays later, Crook tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Prickett for what proved to be the winning touchdown. Coosa got a hand on the PAT, but the ball still had enough to get over the cross bar.
McGuffie was the workhorse. He rushed for 224 yards in the game — 107 in the fourth quarter. He also caught a 21-yard pass in the 15-play drive to get the ball to the 1.
“They just gave me the ball and I ran my hardest,” he said. “This was probably the best game I’ve ever had in my whole career, ever since I’ve been playing football. Couldn’t pick a better night to do it.”
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.