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FDA downs defending champs, heads to title game

As the Fort Dale Eagles picked up a first down with just over three minutes left against Bessemer Academy, a freight train rumbled by the field.

It was a fitting metaphor for the way the Eagles physically dominated the game and earned a berth in the state championship with a 17-8 win.

In the first half, the Fort Dale running game went over, around and through the Bessemer defense.

“We just physically whipped them in the first half,” said head coach Speed Sampley. “We also kept the ball away from them.”

The Eagles’ ball control game was so effective that the Rebels only managed five plays in the first quarter.

Fort Dale made the statement that they came to win by picking up a fourth down and short near midfield on their first drive of the game.

An illegal block penalty put a stop to the drive, but Sean McKeague put some points on the board with a 37-yard field goal that would have been good from 47 yards away.

With a 3-0 lead, the Eagles didn’t let up.

Jeffrey Stead and Daniel Nolan continued to rip off big chunks of yards as the offensive line cleared the way.

With the first quarter winding down, Nolan punched it in from 10 yards out to give the Eagles a 9-0 lead.

The confidence that Fort Dale showed on that first drive again came into play on their next scoring drive, during which the Eagles converted not one, but two first downs on the legs of Dustin Till.

The highlight of the drive was a six-yard scramble by Till on fourth and six at the Bessemer 21-yard line that picked up the first down by the length of the ball.

Nolan capped the drive with a three-yard blast, and Till added the conversion for a 17-0 lead with 1:17 left in the half.

However, Nolan wasn’t done making big plays.

On the last play of the first half, he intercepted a Hail Mary from Bessemer at the goal line and returned it to midfield.

“We played a very physical game in the first half, but we weren’t as physical in the second half,” Sampley said. “Part of that is that we started getting tired. We had people wearing down from covering wide receivers and chasing down the quarterback. That’s why they were able to move the ball a little more on us in the second half.”

Bessemer quarterback Garrett Pinciotti went out with an injury at the end of the first half and didn’t return for the rest of the game.

However, backup quarterback Michael Sellers led the Rebels down the field in the third quarter and capped the drive with a long touchdown pass to Auburn recruit Harris Gaston to cut the lead to 17-8.

“We played a lot of people, and we had several people step in to make plays when others came out of the game,” Sampley said.

Luke Hutcheson made one of those plays.

It appeared that the Rebels would march down for another score when Hutcheson pulled in a spectacular interception off a tipped pass.

The only bad news? Fort Dale was backed up at their own four-yard line.

After a running play went nowhere, it was actually Bessemer’s Gaston that bailed the Eagles out.

A Rebel lineman jumped offsides, and Gaston was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after trying to fire up the defense.

That put the Eagles out to the 21-yard line, and even though the offense punted, the defense cracked down for the rest of the game.

Daniel Lowe was the leading tackler for the Eagles with nine, and Sean Harper spent much of the evening in Bessemer’s backfield.

The Rebels had trouble blocking Harper, and he ended the night with two sacks.

As a whole, the defense held the Rebels to 128 total yards — 20 rushing and 108 passing.

Just how effective and balanced was the Fort Dale rushing game?

The Eagles rushed for 266 yards as a team.

Nolan had 24 carries for 104 yards and Stead recorded 26 carries for 103 yards.

Now the Eagles must prepare for the state championship next Friday against Pike Liberal Arts at 4 p.m. in Troy. The Patriots beat Fort Dale earlier this year 22-16 in Greenville on a night when nothing went right for the Eagles’ offense.

“I told the players to enjoy this one until they got home, and then start thinking about next week,” Sampley said. “This isn’t the one we wanted to win. That one is.”