A great season ends too soon
Charles Prince, Sports Editor
It was a great season, a season which ended three games too soon.
The 2004 Hartselle football team was a thrill-a-minute ride for fans and players alike. Slow starts, big comebacks, historic wins, a seven-game winning streak, this year had everything a football team could encounter.
The season began with many forecasters picking the Tigers to be an average team due to the squad's youth. Some even predicted a break-even record.
The Tigers opened their campaign as underdogs to Austin. Hartselle fell behind 14-0 midway through the opening quarter and things looked bleak. But the game quickly turned and a pattern was set for the season. The Tigers would play well from behind all year. Hartselle tied Austin at the half only to see the Black Bears go up by two scores again, this time midway through the third quarter. Undaunted, the Tigers roared back with three scores, made two defensive stands inside their own 10-yard line in the final four minutes and captured a confidence building win.
The fans were abuzz over the comeback win the following week, but the Tigers fell behind by 13 points early against Curry. For the second straight week, Hartselle roared back and won big. A young team seemed to be maturing. But big tests lay ahead.
Four-time state semi-finalist Russellville would come to town the next week. The Tigers lost in the final minute of play in a 35-28 shootout.
The following week, Hartselle lost by 27 at Decatur as the special teams and pass defense suffered lapses. Now stuck with a 2-2 record it appeared the preseason naysayers might have been correct about a .500 season. The team proved otherwise as they bounced back quickly by posting 49 points in easy region win at Muscle Shoals. The game which defined the Tigers season was next, Athens. The Golden Eagles appeared to be a superior team as they took a 13-3 lead into the half. But something changed at halftime, and the 2004 Tigers were a different team for the rest of the season. In the second half the Tigers outscored Athens 28-7, but the score doesn't reflect how dominating the Hartselle team was. On two of the second half scoring marches, one of nine plays and the other 11, not one pass was thrown. The Tigers simply lined up and said, "We're coming right at you. Stop us if you can."
It was as if a switch was thrown during the halftime intermission as the offensive line took the game over afterwards, and would be a dominating group for the rest of the year. The victory also assured the Tigers of a trip to the postseason.
Almost lost in the offensive surge was the improvement of the defense. The Tigers stop unit shut down Athens' quarterback Rob Ezell, who would later lead Athens to victories over two Top Ten teams in the opening rounds of the state playoffs.
Next up the Cullman Bearcats came to town. The Tigers 47-21 win was the year's best offensive performance.
Following a 42-0 rout of Brewer, the Tigers won for only the second time against Walker.
The win was the first ever on the road over the Vikings and the victory locked up a home game in the first-round of the state playoffs.
The regular season closed with a 20-point win over 6A Florence on the road. Hartselle closed the year with a six-game winning streak just as the team's head coach predicted after the loss at Decatur. Then came the last two weeks of heart-stopping playoff football.
The first a win, the second a tough loss on the road. Each time the Tigers never quit, winning one game late and just missing an overtime in the other on the last play.
Nine wins, quite a year for a team not expected to have a winning season. All three defeats came to teams ranked in the Top Ten in either Class 5A or 6A. It took super-talented squads to bring down these Tigers.
Along the way, Justin Youngblood would gain over 1,800 yards rushing, while scoring 26 times and making a strong case for All-State honors. Seth Watson threw for over 1,000, Chris Wiley led the team in receiving and interceptions and finished second in touchdowns.
Wiley scored five times on receptions and twice on interception returns. Jeff Whitt and Quinn Dunlap made timely interceptions. Michael Scott and Daniel Crowe had over 100 tackles a piece. JD Glenn and Travis Lightle harassed quarterbacks all season long. Johnny "Moo Moo" Jones made big hit after big hit.
The end of the season signals a time to say goodbye to 13 seniors who gave it their all every Friday. Watson, Youngblood, Wiley, Scott, Crowe, Lightle, Glenn, Jay Rushen, Joe Walter Norris, Patrick Whatley, Gary Orr, Zack Blanton and Brain Vest have all played their last game in a Tiger uniform. The nine wins this season were due in part to their leadership. They played with heart and played with humility rarely seen these days.
It seemed they were always crediting their teammates for every good play. When I asked the players about different plays for our "Tiger Talk" section, almost each Tiger I spoke with this season worked a teammates name into the answer.
Commending this one for a block, another one for tying up a blocker so he could get into the backfield and praising still another for making a great throw.
The Tigers understood success is born from teamwork, and they were quick to praise everyone who had a part in it.
Those 13 won't be easy to replace, but several starters and key reserves are returning next year, however the most important returnee next season is the man at the helm of the Hartselle program, Bob Godsey.
Coach Godsey instills togetherness in his players, instills confidence, instills caring, and instills sacrificing for the good of the team.
If 22 players on a football team ever had just one heartbeat, it was the 2004 Hartselle Tigers and Godsey was the reason. He cares about his players and they respond and play with all the desire and intensity they have.
The success of this year's team began in May. Spring practice was under way, but Godsey made time in his schedule to be in attendance as the Tiger baseball team, with several football players in the lineup, crushed Buckhorn. Godsey's presence at the playoff series spoke volumes. His players were aware he was there supporting them. Support like it is rare. I've covered high school sports for seven years and I've meet coaches who didn't give a rip about their players when they aren't playing for them.
It's not the case with the Tiger's leader. He cares about each one of his athletes and they know it.
That caring and togetherness led to the success of this year's Tigers, even more so than the best game plans ever could.
Next season Godsey will have another young group to work with, as there were sophomores and freshman who regularly got on the field in 2004.
But, regardless of age of his players, there's one thing you can be sure of-as long as Bob Godsey stands on the Tiger sidelines Hartselle will have a stout football program.
Even when next season rolls around, what this year's team accomplished won't be forgotten.
In fact, it will shine brightly in the memory of Tiger fans for quite some time to come.