To this day, I don't know if I've ever seen a more joyous group of kids.
And, if you happened to be in attendance that same night, I'm sure you'd probably agree.
I'm talking, of course, about a county football clash that took place Thursday, October 29, 2015.
As Adrian Monk might say, "Here's what happened."
Holly Pond — at the time mired in a state-worst 29-game losing streak — entered Cranford Stricklin Stadium and left with a well-earned 49-40 win over Cold Springs, securing the program's first victory since Week 10 of the 2012 campaign.
One of the great things about this job is it affords me opportunities to witness unforgettable moments and see how those cherished memories impact the communities involved over time.
If the postgame reactions were any indication, the Broncos won't ever forget this one.
I interviewed several key people who were a part of that memorable matchup, and they offered their thoughts and recollections about the night the streak came to a glorious end.
Holly Pond entered having already dropped a pair of heartbreaking contests to Vinemont (29-25) and Hanceville (60-50) earlier in the season. Cold Springs, on the other hand, was riding an impressive four-game win streak that included victories over Vinemont (50-7) and Addison (45-26). The Eagles had also won the previous year's meeting 39-13.
Mike Bates (Holly Pond coach): “I thought we were getting better and that sooner or later something was going to go our way. I didn’t know if it’d be this game, but I could tell we were a lot better than we were. We just didn’t have a win to show for it. We had good skill guys, and we weren’t afraid to hit people. I thought we had a chance. I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but I thought we had a chance.”
Michael Lambert (Holly Pond junior quarterback): "I remember them being a really good team. They were going to the playoffs, and we knew they had beaten some teams pretty good. And we were struggling ... morale wasn't good. We never gave up hope, though — no matter how many games we lost. There's no point in playing if you think you're going to lose every game. Cold Springs could have beaten us by 40 that night, but we were going in there to win. And when we scored a touchdown on the very first play, that told everybody, 'Tonight's our night.’”
Rod Elliott (Cold Springs coach): “As a coach, you never underestimate another team. Winning is hard. I remember we could score a lot of points that year. But I also remember having trouble slowing people down. And Holly Pond was really good offensively.”
Fisher Willoughby (Cold Springs junior safety): “Honestly, we overlooked them. We were kind of more excited for Halloween. I thought they had a strong offense, though. Michael went to Huntingdon, and Caleb (Jones) was a stud … I didn’t want to hit him. I knew they had threats, but not enough to beat us. I never thought they’d be able to do that.”
The teams battled from the get-go, with both offenses clicking early and often. Cold Springs held a 26-21 lead with less than a minute remaining in the first half and had the ball inside Holly Pond’s 5-yard line hoping to pad its cushion. But the Broncos stood tall, twice turning the Eagles away — including Jones' key stop of Christian Crandall that ran out the clock — to stay within striking distance heading into intermission.
Jones (Holly Pond junior linebacker/running back): “It was pretty crazy. I didn’t even know that time was running out. Guys took on blocks, and it opened a gap, and I tackled him. It set a fire on the team having that happen. It was a big play. We could have been down by 13.”
Lambert: "I can still see it. Christian went right, and Caleb shed a block and knocked the crap out of him. It was the little things — catching passes, making tackles, hitting throws. Execution was the biggest part of that night. And that was a huge moment for us. It let us know that we could hang with these guys, and they're not better than us. I thought if we kept doing what we were doing, we were going to mess up and win this thing.”
Bates: “That was a microcosm of getting better. We stopped somebody when we had to, and we hadn’t been able to do that. It gave us a mental push more than anything else.”
Elliott: “I don’t really remember that play, but it seems like the coach didn’t manage the clock well (laughs).”
Neither team backed down the whole night and, when the fourth quarter came around, you could cut the tension with a knife — heck, a spoon would have actually sufficed. With the outcome still very much in doubt, it was the Broncos — so often on the receiving end — who produced the defining play. Lambert threw what at first appeared to be an incomplete pass on a quick screen to Jones. The latter, however, knew instantly it was a lateral, corralled the football after it ricocheted off the turf and raced past a slow-to-react Cold Springs defense for the go-ahead touchdown. Just like that, Holly Pond led 41-40.
Jones: “It was about 50 or 60 yards, and it was instinctive. Anything like that, there’s a possibility of a lateral. I got lucky. It hit the ground and bounced up into my hands. I didn’t really pay attention to the defense. I just took it and scored. You’re taught to pick those up and go until the whistle.”
Bates: “I didn’t realize he had dropped it until I watched film. We had a trick play off it, but I’ve seen Caleb run enough to know that if he got out in front of people he was going to get there.”
Lambert: "I was confused. I thought it was incomplete. Then, he picks it up and takes off. I was like, ‘Holy cow.' Sometimes you get lucky, and the ball bounces your way. And things went our way that night for sure."
Willoughby: “I remember I was on the opposite side of the field. He dropped it, but I saw him run and thought, ‘Oh my goodness. Oh, no. Oh, no.’ That was kind of the dagger. We were down one, but we couldn’t even stop them on their bad plays.”
The momentum-swinging touchdown fueled a suddenly energized Green and White defense, which forced the Eagles into a turnover on downs on the ensuing possession after they’d advanced the football inside Holly Pond’s 20-yard line. Four plays later, Jones rumbled for a 14-yard gain on a critical fourth-down snap, which allowed the Broncos to bleed more clock. Four plays after that, Lambert hit pay dirt on a bootleg and then found Zachary Naler on a 2-point pass to make it 49-40.
Jones: “I don’t remember exactly what we ran, but it was fourth-and-short. I do remember it being a big play. I knew we had to get it, and I knew the ball was coming to me. So I was going to do whatever it took to get us that first down and give us more time.”
Lambert: "I got contact at the 2-yard line, but I wasn’t stopping. I just backpedaled my way into the end zone. They were set up on Caleb running outside, and we caught them with the bootleg. But I've seen crazy things happen. It's high school football. I definitely didn't think we had it (won)."
Jones: “We’re up, and there’s not much time left. But you can’t quit. So I gave it all I had. And I told the guys to do the same thing. We could focus on the win when it was over. Coach used to tell us, ‘Act like you’ve been there before.’ We hadn’t been there in 29 games, but we still had to act like we had.”
Bates: “It’s so hard to relax, even with that lead. I had more confidence in us in the second half, though. Once you get that spark going, it’s hard to put out the flame when it starts burning. We’d been on the other side of that, but this was our flame. And it was good to see that. I liked where we were.”
Elliott: “Holly Pond made a lot of big plays in tough situations that propelled them to the win. If you’re going to break a streak like that, you need things like that to happen. Best I can remember, they just didn’t have confidence to finish games. But as the game went on, that confidence grew. On the other side, we got shaky. We got tight. But it had everything to do with Holly Pond playing well. Boy, they played well.”
Willoughby: “I was thinking that we were playing bad. But sometimes you can play bad and still win. They were doing whatever they wanted, but I still thought we were the better team. I thought we’d bow up on that fourth-down play, but we didn’t and they scored. I still thought we had a chance. We were breaking big plays, but they were, too. I still never thought we were going to lose. But that’s what happened.”
Any thoughts of a Cold Springs comeback — or rather, more Holly Pond heartbreak — were dashed following Naler's interception of Cayde Elliott with 1:02 left. The Green and White defense — gashed in the first half — allowed just 183 total yards during a fine second-half effort. The Broncos eventually cemented their outstanding win with the victory formation, and pandemonium ensued as the clock struck zero. The miserable streak was officially over, and the only tears that followed were not of accustomed sadness. Instead, they were of unrestrained joy.
Naler (Holly Pond junior linebacker/tight end): "I was shocked. It didn't really hit me until after that play was over that we sealed it. I made the play, but the situation never set in. When I caught it, I knew that we had a chance. But when I looked at the clock, I knew it was sealed. That's one of the greatest highlights for me. The team got us to that point, and I was able to put the final straw on the camel's back."
Lambert: "It definitely didn't feel like we were a one-win team that night. We had such a burden on our shoulders because of that losing streak. It was such a weight, and there was a lot of pressure. When you always lose, people start to lose hope in you. They lose hope in the team, the coach, the program, the school. And we always knew something would go wrong for us. But on that night, we didn't think that. I just remember being on cloud nine. It felt good to get it done."
Bates: “I think there’s a tremendous stubborn streak in me. I was relieved for them, and I was happier for them than I could put into words. But I believed in what we were doing, and I thought it’d pay off. I believe the kids learned a lot during that streak, and so did I. You learn that you hate losing more than you love winning. But winning is pretty good. We stayed the course. We stayed positive. All the things we preached, it helped us win that night.”
Naler: "It was happy. It was, 'We finally did it.' It gave new life to the program, and it set the mood for the rest of the school year. To me, it was more than just a game we won. It was a moment in time that changed Holly Pond for a brief minute. We finally got to do the celebration chant in the locker room with coach Bates. And doing that was a great feeling, because he was excited for us. He knew how hard we had worked and thanked every single one of us. We never gave up. We came in and worked every week knowing that we had the longest losing streak (in the state)."
Jones: “It was one of the best things to happen to me in sports. Crazy moment. My dad was there on the sideline. He ran on the field and gave me huge hug. We all got to experience it together. We put in the effort to have that moment.”
Willoughby: “I’ve always said Holly Pond beat us twice. They beat us then and took our breath away. Then we lost to Sulligent in the playoffs the next week. But as mad as I was and as much as it sucked that it happened on our home field, I was happy for them. They’re all a bunch of good guys. I know if I had been a fan in the stands, I would have been rooting for them.”
The Broncos went on to claim 19 victories over the next three seasons (2016-18) — nearly matching the 20 wins they accumulated from 2007-2015 — and notch three straight playoff berths. The team's success during that stretch can no doubt be traced back to that October night, when a group of kids proudly wearing their school colors finally saw the result of their hard work — defined at the time by gut-wrenching defeats and unceasing adversity — come to fruition.
Lambert: "To me, winning in high school is more about mindset than talent. Obviously, you have teams like Hoover, but at our level, a lot of it is culture and mindset and discipline. What that win did for us was give us an attitude. And that helped us the next season start winning games. We didn't have a ton of talent, but it's the guys who don't stand out busting their butts every day ... that's the difference. Statistically, we shouldn't have beaten Cold Springs. But that shaped the rest of my high school career and college career. Anytime I had adversity, I looked back on breaking that losing streak and thought if I can get through that, I can get through anything."
Jones: “That win showed us how to win. We didn’t know how to do that until then. And it set us up for something great. We had so many close games, but we just didn’t know how to finish. To be able to do it in the last game that season was huge. It was just pure excitement. I had never won a high school football game, and I was ready to come back for next year right then.”
Willoughby: “Once Cold Springs broke its streak (a 35-game skid against Decatur Heritage in 2012), we believed in ourselves. No matter what anyone said, we believed in ourselves. Nobody thought we could win or should even have a football program. But we won, and we ended up being a successful program my three years on varsity. After their win, it was a new Holly Pond. And I can relate to that. That’s why I was happy for them.”
Elliott: “The most satisfaction I’ve ever had in a football game was the night we broke our streak. I remember thinking how happy I was for them. Until you’ve been in that situation, you don’t understand it. I really had heartfelt joy. You can’t help but feel happy for people in those situations. It’s hard to go out and practice and play and practice and play and never see the successes. But when that night comes, it’s a special situation. And I’m sure it was the same for them. I’m usually upset after we lose, but I remember having heartfelt joy for their kids, their team and their school.”
Bates: “It made playing football at Holly Pond fun again. Our numbers increased, and our enthusiasm was there. Our kids went into every game after that thinking they could win. The way we competed after that night was night and day. We finally learned how to compete, play as hard as you can and accept the results. I remember the pure joy of that win — after the game, the bus ride home, the next Monday at school. It’s definitely one of my favorite games. I had a ball out there. That losing streak tested me, just like the kids were tested. But I believed the whole time. It was just being positive and thinking, ‘This is going to happen sooner or later.’”
Naler: "It reset the entire football program. We weren't a losing team anymore. We had something to fight for. Before that game, we were trying to break the streak, trying not to lose. After we won, we played to go to the state championship. We had more to fight for. To have had the chance to be there, I'm very blessed. I still talk about it today."