On Friday night, it was Adairsville's punt return team that took center stage in a 38-14 win over Sonoraville, with Fox 5 in Tiger Valley for the High 5 Sports Game of the Week.
"We felt like we could return the ball on punts on 'em, and we felt like that all week," Adairsville coach Jim Kremer said. "Special teams, we've preached that. I believe we won on all three phases, but especially the special teams."
Trey Gulledge shined on special teams, erasing the Phoenix's brief lead -- which was set up by a big Sonoraville kick return -- to put Adairsville on top to stay with his 38-yard punt return in the second quarter -- which he took on a handoff from Kaylon Carter. Mike Upshaw stretched the football across the goal line for the two-point conversion and the Tigers led by a score of 14-7 with 11:06 to play before the half.
It would be the first of many second-quarter scores for Adairsville, and Gulledge had his hand in just about all of them.
Unable to sustain a drive for the second straight possession after its touchdown, Sonoraville was forced to punt back to the Tigers' game-changing return man, and Gulledge made the Phoenix pay once again, although it did not appear to be heading that way at first.
After initially dropping Robert Morgan's punt, Gulledge scooped it up quickly and broke out to the left where the field opened up as he beat the Sonoraville punt coverage to the sidelines for a 56-yard touchdown. Dakota Hines' extra point produced a 21-7 lead for Adairsville with 7:58 left in the half.
Gulledge ceded some of the spotlight to the rest of his teammates on the punt team as 6-foot-9 Zach Coker gave his pal a breather by blocking Morgan's punt, which was recovered at the Phoenix 9-yard line by Cody Keim.
A couple of plays later, Gulledge got in on the offensive action, coming around the right side of the formation to take a handoff from Ward for a 4-yard TD run. Hines' kick made it 28-7 Adairsville, with 6:04 remaining in the quarter.
Gulledge nearly produced another big play as he followed Ben Bolander's 20-yard run with a 17-yard gainer to the Sonoraville 6. However, the play was called back due to a holding penalty on the Tigers.
Adairsville regrouped as backup quarterback Andrew Ward, who started in place of Cody Kremer, scurried for 14 yards down to the 8 to set up a touchdown by Upshaw, who once again demonstrated his iron will by shedding Phoenix tacklers before spinning and knocking over a defender on his path to the end zone. The Tigers led 35-7 at halftime.
Both coaches agreed to a running clock in the second half, which diluted each team's scoring opportunities -- that coupled with increased playing time for some of the youngest players on the Adairsville and Sonoraville rosters.
The Tigers and Phoenix starting units did lead a scoring drive each before giving way to backups.
Adairsville received the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 72 yards in five plays, including a 43-yard scramble by Ward, who dropped back to pass before zigging and zagging his way to a 43-yard gain. The Tigers wound up settling for a 28-yard Hines field goal with 7:55 in the third.
Not to be outdone, Sonoraville also turned its first possession of the half into points, losing yardage before Shaqeal McAfee's 14-yard run led to a 71-yard TD pass from Harris to Chris Baker with 4:23 in the third.
The play turned out to be one of the lone bright spots for a Phoenix offense that did not have much time to think. Sonoraville finished with 115 total yards.
"We tried to bring outside pressure early and then we started with inside pressure and then we were mixing it in with some base, probably got a little blitz happy, and they got us on that big play when we were in man coverage there," Kremer said. "On defense, we try to mix things up pretty good and try to disguise and not let 'em see where it's coming from, and coach [Billy] Roper and coach [Jon] Cudd, the defensive coaches, did a great job. The offensive coaches did a great job. The special teams coaches did a great job."
Adairsville seemed to signal its big-play potential early in the game as Gulledge's 63-yard punt return for a score was eliminated by an illegal block penalty, which delayed the inevitable by mere seconds as Ward executed a triple option play to perfection for a 58-yard TD run on the Tigers' second play from scrimmage. Adairsville led 6-0 with 9:46 to play in the first quarter.
The hosts' early lead was short-lived as Sonoraville's Jackson Murray drove Gabriel Lopez's kickoff deep into Tigers territory with a 57-yard return.
Despite starting its possession at the Adairsville 31, the Phoenix still required 11 plays to put the ball in the end zone, a drive that was kept alive by a Tigers pass interference penalty on fourth-and-8 from the 29. Sonoraville's nearly five-and-half-minute drive concluded with Harris keeping the ball for a 1-yard sneak to give his team a 7-6 lead following a Matt Edgar kick with 4:12 remaining in the first.
The lead held until the end of the first, but the second quarter gave way to Gulledge and his dazzling returns, his first two punt return touchdowns of the season.
"The blocking was just amazing. My teammates, they work hard every day in practice on that. It's just an amazing thing when we all gel together. Every time we get on this field, you feel something. It's that gelling," Gulledge said. "It felt great. Just being in this atmosphere is great."
Adairsville moved to 3-0 on the season and welcomes East Hall to Tiger Valley Friday in a 7:30 p.m. matchup pitting the Region 7A-AA Tigers against the Region 8A-AA Vikings (2-1).
Led by its 23 seniors, Adairsville will look to continue making strides toward what could be a special season.
"We've played together since we were 8 and under. I mean, we've had all this time to gel, and I think this is gonna be our year. I think we can take it," Gulledge said.
Kremer expects his starting quarterback, son Cody Kremer, to be back under center for practice Monday, but he acknowledged he will not risk anything with the all-important sub-region schedule yet to begin. The Tigers play their first sub-region game Sept. 30 at Coosa.
"Cody should be back on Monday, but we're gonna make sure he's totally healthy because we're gonna need him to be totally healthy when we get into the stretch of our sub-region," Jim Kremer said. "Honestly, we feel good about Andrew, too. The way we practice, we make sure we have quality people at all our positions in case something like that happens."
Ward finished the night with 150-plus total yards, featuring his 58-yard score, 43-yard scramble and three completions.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
1 2 3 4 F
SON 7 0 7 0 14
ADA 6 29 3 0 38
ADA -- Andrew Ward 58-yd run (kick missed), 9:46
SON -- Tyler Harris 1-yd run (Matt Edgar kick), 4:12
ADA -- Trey Gulledge 38-yd punt return (Mike Upshaw run), 11:06
ADA -- Gulledge 56-yd punt return (Dakota Hines kick), 7:58
ADA -- Gulledge 4-yd run (Hines kick), 6:04
ADA -- Upshaw 8-yd run (Hines kick), 3:19
ADA -- Hines 28-yd FG, 7:55
SON -- Chris Baker 71-yd pass from Harris (Edgar kick), 4:23
First downs 5 5
Rushes-yds 28-12 24-152
Passing yds 103 43
Comp-Att-Int 4-15-0 3-4-0
Total yds 115 195
Penalties 6-35 4-43
Fumbles-lost 5-2 3-1
Punts-yds 5-156 3-111
Rushing -- Sonoraville: Shaqeal McAfee 6-13, Austin Sollicito 4-13, Jackson Murray 5-1, Clay Grisham 2-0, Tyler Harris 5-(-1)-1, Team 2-(-3), Taylor Kephart 1-(-5), Robert Morgan 3-(-6); Adairsville: Andrew Ward 9-110-1, Mike Upshaw 5-24-1, Ben Bolander 2-16, Trey Gulledge 1-4-1, Coltin Gulledge 2-2, Clay Duncan 1-2, Tristin Smith 2-0, Kyle Adams 1-(-3), Team 1-(-3).
Passing -- Sonoraville: Harris 4-15-103; Adairsville: Ward 3-4-43.
Receiving -- Sonoraville: Chris Baker 2-81-1, McAfee 1-18, Tre' Vaughn Bostic 1-4; Adairsville: Hiram Velez 1-28, Upshaw 1-10, Bolander 1-5.