By Lee Davis
Journal Sports Writer
Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa came to Thompson Reynolds Stadium Friday night with something to prove.
The Patriots entered their second round Class 6A playoff game with a perfect 11-0 record, yet most prognosticators established host Vestavia Hills as the favorite.
This was despite the fact that the Rebels had a 7-4 record and were only the third seed in Region 6. The comparative weakness of Hillcrest’s schedule weighed against Region 6’s reputation as the state’s toughest high school circuit to tilt the conventional wisdom toward Vestavia.
For one night at least, Hillcrest proved it didn’t deserve its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of high school football. Melvin Gueler’s 44-yard field goal with five seconds remaining gave the Patriots a dramatic 17-14 win over the Rebels.
Hillcrest moves on to face Hoover in the next round of the playoffs. Vestavia ends its season with a 7-5 worksheet.
“I’m proud of our guys,” said Vestavia coach Buddy Anderson, who saw his team rally from a 1-3 beginning to reach the playoffs’ second round. “We came up a little short. If this is the worst thing that ever happens to these guys, they will have great lives. I’m proud of what this team accomplished.”
The Rebels might have done even better had they been more effective in keeping the football. Hillcrest had a whopping 43 more offensive snaps than did Vestavia.
Patriot quarterback Luke Wingo earned the game’s first score, capping a 15-play drive with an eight-yard touchdown run to give Hillcrest a 7-0 lead with 2:18 remaining in the first period.
The Rebels responded immediately as Georgie Salem electrified the home fans with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Ryan Raspino’s conversion tied the game at 7-7.
“The blocking was perfect,” Salem said later.
Hillcrest regained the initiative in the second period as Wingo scored again, this time on a three-yard plunge. Gueler’s second conversion put the visitors ahead 14-7 with 8:35 remaining in the first half.
Again Vestavia came back. Quarterback Jack Cole completed an 18-yard pass to Salem, and fullback Stuart Jacobs had a 33-yard run to bring the Rebels near the goal line. Cole’s one-yard touchdown sneak and Raspino’s extra point tied the game 14-14 at intermission.
Vestavia charged to the Patriots’ 18-yard line in the third quarter, but an untimely fumble by Salem ended the drive.
“I didn’t hold the ball like I should have,” said Salem, refusing to offer an alibi. “I got hit and the ball came out. I probably wasn’t concentrating.”
Hillcrest seized the momentum in the fourth quarter. Vestavia’s defense sacked Wingo three times in the second half, but that didn’t stop the Patriot quarterback on the game-winning drive. He carried the ball on 10 of Hillcrest’s 15 plays prior to Gueler’s field goal.
Wingo’s biggest run came when he gained nine yards on a fourth-and-four situation at the Rebels’ 49.
The stage was soon set for Gueler’s heroics.
Wingo admitted later that the lack of respect his team was receiving in the media prior to the game was a major motivating factor for the Patriots.
“Even though we were undefeated, people doubted us,” said Wingo. “Region 6 is probably the best region in the state and maybe in a whole lot of other places, too. A lot of people didn’t think we could win here (at Vestavia), but our team believed, and we came through with a huge win tonight.”
Jacobs led Vestavia’s running game with 86 yards on seven carries. Salem rushed for 67 yards on 12 carries and had the kickoff return for a score as he played his final game in a Rebel uniform.
Vestavia’s season ended because a little-respected undefeated Hillcrest team had a point to prove.