Both Montgomery Catholic and Andalusia football entered Friday's AHSAA Class 4A semifinal at Cramton Bowl with demons to exorcise.
The Knights fell to city rival Montgomery Academy in last season's 3A semifinal. The Bulldogs had been to the semis in five of the last six seasons only to lose each time, including last season.
Friday was Andalusia's turn to break through. The fifth-ranked Bulldogs (13-1) beat Catholic, 29-26, to advance to next week's Super 7 in Auburn. They'll face Cherokee County (12-2) Friday at 11 a.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
For the Knights (13-1), who have been ranked No. 1 all season, the story was similar to 2021 in the most bitter fashion. A three-point loss, decided in the final moments, to a team they had beaten during the regular season.
"My boys played OK; they played better," said coach Kirk Johnson. "Simple as that. They made the plays, we didn't make the plays."
Last season's 10-7 defeat came as more of a shock. Catholic ripped Montgomery Academy, 42-0, in the regular season and entered the rematch having outscored its opponents 626-33. It hadn't been in a game decided by less than 31 points. This season, against stiffer 4A competition, the Knights have had to outlast teams, like they did in a 21-14 quarterfinal win over Handley last Friday.
While the Eagles found their groove at the right time last season, Andalusia had been nearly as dominant as Catholic this season. It came in averaging 42 points per game while holding opponents to 15. The battle for the 4A Region 2 title on Oct. 21 was hard-fought, with the Knights taking a 24-23 lead into halftime and pulling away from the Bulldogs.
"I think we're a better football team than we were in Week 10," said Andalusia coach Trent Taylor. "I know that sounds crazy, but that's something we take a lot of pride in."
Catholic held Andalusia's powerful rushing attack in check in the second half a month ago. Taylor said the Knights didn't change much on the defensive front, and the Bulldogs kept hammering away. This time, they won just enough battles. While Andalusia averaged just 4.7 yards per play to Catholic's 7.7, it relied on Dorean Crittenden (45 carries, 208 yards, two touchdowns) to keep the chains moving and try to wear the Knights out.
The Knights expected the Bulldogs to bring power and physicality to the line of scrimmage. What they didn't count on was a rash of uncharacteristic mistakes, from a lost fumble and a red-zone interception to two missed field goals and a missed extra point.
"We had the ball in the red zone four times and couldn't draw points," Johnson said. "We just didn't make the plays when it counts. That's on us coaches for not having our guys prepared to make those plays. I take full responsibility for the loss."
But Catholic continued to fight, holding Andalusia to 20 yards in the fourth quarter. Down 29-19 with six minutes left, Caleb McCreary led the Knights 80 yards in 90 seconds and found Luke Harkless for a touchdown. The Bulldogs tried to put the game away on fourth-and-3 with a minute left, but Zach Underwood and a host of Knights pushed Crittenden back to earn the offense one final shot.
Four plays later, though, McCreary's final pass fell to the turf.
Once moribund, Catholic has become one of Alabama's strongest programs. The Knights' senior class went 50-6 and won four region titles in four seasons. But it's too soon for those accomplishments to sink in, Johnson said. Friday will sting for a while. Thus, his final message to his team didn't have much do to with football.
"Life's not over," Johnson said. "It's high school football. We're in this business to lead young men, grow young men. At the end of the day, you gotta be a good son tonight, gotta be a big brother tonight. Whatever it is, you gotta continue to go."
Jacob Shames can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 334-201-9117 and on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Montgomery Catholic falls to Andalusia in repeat semifinal defeat