By Bill Sorrell
Sweet Home Alabama has moved north.
Last year, Bartlett hired Lance Tucker as head football coach. He coached Fayette County, Ala., High School from 2011 through 2018, leading the Tigers to a 76-31 record including two state 4A runner-up finishes in 2015 and 2017 and a 3A state runner-up season in 2012.
Tucker took over at Fayette County after his father, Waldon Tucker, who coached 27 seasons at Fayette County, retired in 2010 with a 230-95 record. The Tigers won the 4A state championship in 1996.
Overall he coached 37 seasons, four at Demopolis Academy, six at Gordo, which won the 1980 2A state title He finished with a 309-126-3 record and was inducted into the Alabama State High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
The Alabama High School Football Historical Society listed him as the winningest high school football coach in Alabama history. He came out of retirement this season to take over again as head coach at Fayette County.
“He taught me everything I know,” said Lance Tucker, who played quarterback for his father from 1987-1993 before going to play quarterback at the University of Alabama from 1993-1997. “Do everything you can to win; try to put people where they are not and make adjustments.”
The Panthers did against Houston on Friday at Bartlett, defeating the Mustangs 38-20 in a Region 7-6A game. It was the first time Bartlett had beaten Houston since 2011 and was Houston’s first region loss since 2017.
Bartlett quarterback Walt Tucker, a senior and Lance Tucker’s son, said,
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling beating Houston, who is one of the top teams in the state by far. It was something we have not done since we were 9 years old. We accomplished something that nobody has done in Bartlett in awhile. It feels great.”
With a career game from Bartlett running back Robert Giaimo, a defense that held the Mustangs scoreless in the second half, a 73-yard pass interception that Bartlett linebacker Justin Jefferson returned for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers (4-1, 1-0 in region) won their fourth straight. Houston fell to 2-3, 1-1 in region.
A senior, Giaimo had personal bests scoring five touchdowns and rushing for 295 yards on 35 carries. It was the most yardage by a Shelby-Metro back this season.
“I couldn’t have done it without my offensive line. Without them I wouldn’t have got what I got right now. What was going through my mind was just do whatever it takes to win a game,” said Giaimo, who uses his vision (that he calls a strength), foot work and 4.49 speed in the 40 to, “accelerate really fast while seeing an opening creating for me. I run hard. I am a power back mostly but also kind of shifty. It wasn’t the plan for me to run as many yards this game. Our plan is to beat any team that stands in our way.”
Giaimo scored on touchdown runs of 75, 2, 14, 3, 1. His two-point conversion catch from Tucker tied the game at 14.
“Robert can really run hard. He ran hard all night,” said Houston head coach James Thomas. “We made some plays on him but he made more on us. You have to gang tackle him.”
Walt Tucker said, “You can’t win without 21 (Giaimo) and your offensive line. The offensive line keeps him and me safe. He runs the ball and never looks back. We give him the ball and follow behind him. He’s a great player and he never quits fighting.”
Houston quarterback Gray Nischwitz said that Giaimo was just as good as he looked on film.
“Hats off to that kid for not getting tired and bringing everything he had into holes while keeping his feet moving to break tackles.”
Lance Tucker said Bartlett’s offensive line played “great” and its defense made stops so Giaimo could get more carries. “It was a good team win.”
Kyler Hartunian, Malik McDaniel, Caleb Gross, Sam Marquez, Zac McCollum, Jaylen Grantham, Colton Chandler are Bartlett offensive linemen.
Giaimom who has been offered a scholarship by Arkansas Tech but wants to “stack up” more offers, also credited wide receivers Khyron James, Ahmani Davis, D.J. Jones for key blocks that helped him get “the yardage, the big runs.”
Calling the Panthers defense “amazing,” they were sparked by Jefferson and linebacker newcomer Jeremy Boyland, who had a team-high eight tackles along with Jefferson. Boyland also had a big defensive stop in the third quarter that Walt Tucker said was a turning point.
“He really did show out and introduced himself as his first game as a Bartlett Panther,” said Walt Tucker, adding that Jefferson has been a leader on defense. “We plan on letting him be the defensive leader the whole year and we’ll follow behind him. He’s the tempo.”
Bartlett led 32-20 when Jefferson picked off Nischwitz and was off to the races. He scored with 20.3 seconds left.
It was Jefferson’s first career interception for a touchdown.
“The interception was a great experience. That really put the nail in the coffin. On the way to the end zone I was in shock. I knew that quarterback was not going to catch me because I’m too fast,” said Jefferson, who has improved his 40 time of 4.51.
Giaimo said, “J.J. did really good covering that ball and running it back for a touchdown. He did his part on his plays. I was hyped, happy that he got that pick.”
“It was crazy,” said Walt Tucker of the TD interception. “I was happy for him because a linebacker you never really get a chance to intercept the ball much less return it for a pick six.”
Nischwitz called Jefferson’s touchdown “salt in the wound.”
“At that point I believed the game should have been a score of 26-20 just how back and forth it was throughout,” he said. “Our offense could have done a better job at being more diverse with the vertical game. I didn’t hit my play makers enough.”
Nischwitz completed 6 of 18 passes for 28 yards and threw two touchdown passes. Jaylin Momon gained 149 yards on 31 carries.
The Mustangs consistent ability to get positive rushing yardage was a positive that Nischwitz took from the game.
“I thought we did a good job of shifting momentum when the game got close to pull ahead especially in the middle of the game,” he noted.
The Mustangs took a 7-0 lead on their first possession after a 70-yard drive. Momon scored on a 2-yard run and Carson Richards kicked the extra point.
Ben Stegall and Momon had first down runs in the drive which was aided by a Bartlett pass interference penalty. On the last offensive play of the first quarter Nischwitz threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brock Vice. Richards made it 14-0.
Houston’s R.H. Frankland blocked Tucker’s punt at the Panther 8 with 2:14 left in the first quarter. Josh Mathis ran to the 6 before Nischwitz’s TD pass to Vice.
“We were down a couple of touchdowns but we kept fighting,” said Lance Tucker. “That was key for these guys.”
With 11:37 left in the second quarter, Giaimo raced 75 yards for a touchdown. Tucker’s extra point attempt was blocked.
Walt Tucker called the touchdown a turning point for the Panthers. “That made it a one touchdown game.”
Trailing 14-6, Jones made an awesome catch of a Tucker pass that went for 43 yards to the Houston 22.
“We threw it up to one of our best players and told him to go get it,” said Walt Tucker, who threw an 85-yard pass against Christian Brothers this season.
Giaimo ran six straight plays with the last run a 2-yard touchdown with 3:21 left. It was 14-12 before Tucker hit Giaimo for the 2-point conversion.
An excellent return by Stegall, who would finish the game with 60 kick return yards on three carries, got Houston on the 50. Momon ran to the 34 and Mathis to the 25 before Stegall got a first down at the Panther 24.
Another first down run by Stegall got to the 20. Momon ran to the 8 before Nischwitz threw 8 yards for a touchdown to Carson Goold with 24.3 seconds left in the first half. Richard’s PAT was blocked by Trashawn Martin. The Mustangs led 20-14 at halftime.
“We started off real slow. At halftime we made a few adjustments and and the defense stopped them and the offense came out hot and scored,” said Walt Tucker.
Bartlett tied the game 20-20 in the third quarter after a 71-yard drive. The Panthers continued to feed the ball to Giaimo. After a fourth down run for a first down, Giaimo scored on a 14-yard run. Tucker’s two-point conversion pass failed.
Martin’s interception of Nischwitz’s pass at the Panther 49 started a 51-yard drive. Giaimo’s 44-yard run got to the Houston 6 before the Mustangs were called for a face mask penalty. From the 3, Giaimo ran for the score that put the Panthers ahead for good, 26-20 with 0.8 left in the third quarter. Tucker’s pass for two points failed.
Facing fourth down and 15 with 2:57 left in the game, Nischwitz threw to Vice for a first down but the pass was incomplete.
The Panthers took over on the Mustangs 18. Giaimo ran to the 5 then to the 1 and from there scored for a 32-20 lead with 59.4 seconds left. Tucker’s PAT was blocked.
Of the decision to go for the first down deep in his own territory, Nischwitz said that Thomas and offensive coordinator Ronnie Thompson thought Giaimo “was going to be too much to handle if we give the ball back with time left. They wanted to win and we felt confident Brock could come down with the ball given his efficiency in our red zone tries so we gave it a go. Obviously the ball could have been placed better for him to make a play but the real catalyst was just solid defense from Bartlett to not allow him to secure it.”
Said Thomas, “I already know that we are in the second round of the playoffs, why not take some chances. There were only three minutes left so it was a gamble that didn’t pay off.”
All Region 7-6A teams still playing will receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs because Region 8 Shelby County School teams are not playing due to COVID.
Houston had driven to the Bartlett 27 when Jefferson intercepted the pass that put the icing on the cake for the Panthers, 38-20. Tucker took a knee on the 2-point conversion.
“Houston had great coaching and gave us a run for our money.” said Jefferson. “What really made the difference was that we battled adversity being down 14 points and shutting them down in the second half. I see us winning and going deep in the playoffs and giving some big, big schools a run for their money.”
Giaimo said, “It is amazing (beating Houston). It’s been awhile. It was wonderful overall, both sides of the ball offensively and defensively, we played all 48 minutes. Our offense tried our best to keep the ball as long as possible. Everything is going perfectly as planned. My goal is to be a first-team all-region running back and to make it to the playoffs and to the state championship. We have to stay focused. It’s nothing like everyone being hyped up and each one during their jobs.”
Thomas said he knew the Mustangs would be in for a dogfight.
“They were going to be a good football team and a good test. Obviously we wanted to come out on the other end of that dogfight. I knew it was going to be a tough game. We had a good first half but we didn’t put two halves together. They did. Not scoring in the second half or tackling 21 (Giaimo) turned the whole game around.”
Calling it a “heck of a high school football game,” Lance Tucker said, “Our kids played a good football game on both sides. Houston is well coached. We got a couple of interceptions and balls bounced our way.”
Bartlett strengths are hard-playing kids he said.
“I always say that is a strength. If the kids don’t play hard it doesn’t matter how much ability they’ve got or how good of coaches you are. If they don’t play hard you don’t have a chance to win. We have a bunch of young men doing the best they can.”
Walt Tucker, who passed for 50 yards on 3 of 8 completions, said, “As long as we play together as a team and keep getting better every week we live with the outcome. This proves that as long as we keep playing hard, staying focused and get better we can compete with anybody.”
The Panthers finished with 336 yards total offense from their multiple formation. Jones led receivers with 43 yards and led in kick-return yardage with 44 yards. Orlando Moore had 29 return yards. James had 7 receiving yards. Tucker averaged 29 yards on one punt.
Giaimo cited Tucker, Hartunian. McDaniel, Gross as offensive leaders against Houston.
Defensively, Elijah Guitierez added 7 tackles for Bartlett, Lucas Luster 6, Thomas Jones 5, Moore 3, Jared Pearson 2, 1 each made by Martin, Jones, Xavier Bembry, Bryan Whitehead, William Bantom, T.J. Cox, Devarion Watkins, Kam Dickerson, Adrian Lang, Terry Burkett.
Houston stat keepers had the Mustangs with 258 yards total offense, with Mathis rushing for 17 yards, Stegall 60, Nischwitz 5. Goold had 12 yards receiving, Darby Smith 8, Vice 7. Tim Toney had two kick returns for 43 yards including his longest of 49 yards.
Gould, Smith and Frankland stood out for the Mustangs said Nischwitz. “They’re used to running routes and being the playmakers but they got in the mud this game to better equip our power run game and they never complained. They are unselfish.” He was “elated”that cornerback/wide receiver Will Stegall got to play after returning from an injury.
Houston offensive/defensive lineman Harrison Wilkes played hard said Thomas. “Ben Stegall played some good defense and made some good runs.”
Thomas gave the Panthers credit for the way they “didn’t quit playing. They got themselves back in it. They ran us down from the back side a couple of times. We didn’t make the plays in the air when we needed to. They made some big stops on fourth-down plays.
“You learn a lot from losing. Obviously we didn’t execute well enough on offense and defense to win. So we’ll get those mistakes corrected and get better.”
Houston hosts Collierville (2-2) at 7 p.m. this Friday in a region game. The Panthers play at Arlington (4-3) in a region game that begins at 7 p.m. Friday.
Giaimo called Houston a “really good team. I show my respect to them.”
What has meant the most this season to Giaimo is the “coming together as brothers and friends and enjoying every moment. I love the team. I am thankful to be a Bartlett Panther.”
What pleased Walt Tucker was continuing to fight after trailing by two touchdowns.
“We didn’t start off good either side of the ball and we never quit fighting. Everybody played good when it came down to the wire,” said Tucker, now one of 34 seniors and who last season in his first year at Bartlett was told by offensive linemen and seniors “to follow them and they would have me under their wing.”
With faith a vital part of his life, Tucker plays with a Bible verse in mind, Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men.”
“Than is what I’ve been trying to do this whole year. We give God the glory for keeping all of us safe. We give God the glory for letting us play and you have to give the (Bartlett administrative) staff thanks for letting us play.”
When Walt Tucker is on the field Lance Tucker said his son “is just another player. We coach him to the best of our ability.”
Playing for his father “is a dream come true. I never would have thought I would play for somebody I look up to but it is a dream come true to get to experience this and follow in his footsteps. I look up to him as a player and how being my coach is something special. They’ve (father and grandfather) taught me everything I know about the game. They haven’t just taught me about being a football player, they’ve taught me how to be the person I am today.”
Giaimo, who prays with teammates before games, said it is “amazing” to have Lance Tucker as head coach along with new assistants.
“They have helped us overcome a lot of things. Coach Lance gave us a lot of confidence. He really shows that he cares as a coach. We really care about winning and putting in the effort for it.”
Said Walt Tucker, “This is not the same Bartlett.”
“This team will never quit and has each other’s backs when it comes down to the wire,” he concluded. “When it goes bad, when it goes good, this team will never quit fighting.”