Verbena sputters in opener against Central Coosa

Published 11:45 am Saturday, August 26, 2023

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By Griffin Pritchard | Alexander City Outlook

The Central of Coosa County High School Cougars scored on their first two possessions on the way to a 50-22 victory over a young Verbena High School squad at Porch Field on Aug. 25.

“We played very well to start the game, but I don’t think we finished that way. But we are rebuilding the culture here,” said second-year Cougars’ coach Shondell Russaw. “We go from 1-9 last year and they bought in this summer. The kids they’ve bought in. I’ve been extremely tough on them; I’ve ran them and hollered at them. I’ve pushed them, but to look up and see a 50 on that scoreboard … to start the season with so many fans … it is not me, it is the kids. The kids are buying in and wanting something out of this and are wanting the opportunity to be great.”

The Cougars, looking for opportunities, capitalized on them early forcing fumbles on back-to-back Red Devil possessions. Freshman quarterback Ja’Von Peterson kicked off the scoring with a second-down touchdown run of 35-yards. Elijah Richardson added the second score of the night, taking a Peterson handoff around the end and into the end zone for the 18-yard touchdown.

Leading 14-0, Richardson added another six points to the tally, breaking free on a 13-yard touchdown run to put the Cougars up 20-0.

Overall, five different Cougars found their way to the end zone in the win.

“We struggled tackling,” said Verbena coach Allen Brothers. “We’re young. We lost 21 kids from last year’s team. That’s going to take a toll. My biggest fear came true tonight. We have seven starters on defense that have never played a snap of varsity football and they don’t understand how to tackle just yet. Nothing simulates the game, so it’s going to take them some time.”

Verbena, who finished last season 8-3 with a playoff appearance, rallied back scoring a 15-yard Lance Edwards run in the second quarter to cut into the Cougars lead. Edwards finished the night with 17 carries and 79 yards.

Coosa, though, was not dismayed scoring twice more to take a 32-6 lead into the intermission. Cassidy Howard, leading a defense that forced a handful of turnovers, intercepted a Red Devils pass and turned it into an 85-yard house call.

“We were just trying to move the ball in a hurry,” said Brothers.

Richardson scored his third touchdown of the night on the first play of the third quarter. Calling his own number, he took the snap and raced around the right side of the offensive line and down the field for the 65-yard touchdown run to expand the score to 38-6.

In the second half the Red Devils took the field with a more physical offense, the Bulldozer set, and began to grind into the Coosa defense.

“It’s a power set. Last year. we ran it a ton, but it’s physical,” said Brothers. “We should have been in it from the start and from this point forward this is all we are going to be in. What it does for us is control the clock and allows our defense to get off the field and puts us in a chance to win the game. We started, on offense and defense together, nine freshmen. If they figure it out early, we are going to be good and can salvage this season. If they don’t, we’re going to be the same Verbena we’ve been for the past 40 years. That’s a tough culture to break.”

Coosa stopped it, for the most part, but not without a hard-earned lesson in mental toughness.

“We got to get a little more grit about ourselves. We got tired and kind of wanted to push around (after the play),” Russaw said. “We wanted to get a little undisciplined, but we’ve got to find ourselves; push ourselves more in the weight room, at the end of practice. We’ve got to beat this heat. You start letting this heat get to you that’s when you start getting more and more undisciplined.”

Offensively, the Cougars kept the pressure up scoring on a 19-yard jump-pass with 5:11 to go in the third period. Antoneo Grant – running quarterback for the injured Peterson – completed the pass to Alex Williams for the touchdown.

Verbena answered with Jacob Morris breaking free on a 65-yard touchdown run in the third and then followed with a 28-yard touchdown run by Tomas Cabrera moving the score to 44-22 with 6:50 left in the game.

Morris finished the night with 162 yards rushing. His third-quarter touchdown was the longest play of the night for the Red Devils. Cabrera finished with five carries for 41 yards.

Elisha Hayes capped the scoring for the Cougars with a 10-yard touchdown with under two minutes left in the game. The win marks the most points scored by a Cougars team since Russaw took over.

“I give Russaw some credit. In his second year he’s got a good combination of speed and talent,” said Brothers. “Even though we practice it and go live – it’s not game speed. I think it gives (us) an opportunity to see what it’s going to be like. We’ve got Fayetteville (High School) next that’s going to be another tough one. But at this point, if we don’t learn how to wrap up and tackle, they are all going to be tough.”

The Cougars are back in action on Sept. 1 against Talladega County Central. Verbena travels to Fayetteville on the same day for a 7 p.m. kickoff.