By Josh Bean | For the AHSAA
Auburn, AL – Saint James High School junior quarterback KJ Jackson struggled in the first half of Thursday’s Class 3A championship game against defending champ Piedmont. Things changed quickly in the second half.
The 6-foot-4 left-hander threw five second-half touchdown passes and finished 10-of-15 passing for 351 yards to lead the Trojans (13-2) to a 45-28 victory over Piedmont in the 27th AHSAA Super 7 Class 3A state championship game played this year at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The championship was the first state football title in school history.
“The line gave me some more time, and it was all on from there,” Jackson explained about his second-half surge.
Piedmont (12-3), the defending 3A champion, was making its sixth championship-game appearance since 2015.The Bulldogs appeared to take control in the first half when quarterback Jack Hayes scored on a 1-yard TD run with three seconds remaining in the second period to stake the Bulldogs to a 20-10 lead.
Piedmont also received the second-half kickoff, but fumbled on the return and the Trojans’ Cole Anderson recovered. Jackson threw his first touchdown pass two plays later, a 21-yarder to Clint Houser, and the comeback was officially on.
Jackson added a 48-yard touchdown pass to Ziggy Holloway to give Saint James its first lead at 24-20. He added touchdown passes of 57 yards to Houser, 93 yards to Ethan Beard and 53 yards to Beard to make it 45-28 early in the fourth quarter.
In the third quarter, Jackson, who earned Class 3A championship game MVP honors, completed 4-of-5 passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns.
Jackson’s performance spoiled another standout performance by Hayes, who set AHSAA career records for touchdowns accounted for, passing touchdowns, passing yards and total offense during his prep career. He started one game as an eighth grader and 59 in his high school years to finish with 60 starts.
The Bulldogs’ offense consisted largely of a shotgun snap to Jackson, who probed for a running lane. Hayes finished with 35 carries for 214 yards and four touchdowns but completed just 6-of-26 passes for 80 yards.
“Their quarterback, Jack Hayes, is something else,” St. James coach Jimmy Perry said. “We had to put nine in the box to try to slow him down.”
Hayes’ 5-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter capped a 10-play, 68-yard drive and cut Saint James’ lead to 31-28. The Trojans fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and the ball rolled out of bounds inside the 10.
Two plays later, Jackson delivered the backbreaker by connecting on the 93-yard touchdown pass to Beard.
“We just settled down and let our receivers do what we do,” Perry said.
Beard caught four passes for 194 yards, while Houser caught three passes for 91 yards. Holloway had three catches for 66 yards. “Ethan, Ziggy, and Clint, it speaks for itself. They get open,” said Jackson.
Cosner Harrison added 20 carries for 102 yards for Saint James, while Wils Johnson led the defense with 10 tackles. Trevor Pike and Rhett Alford led the Piedmont defense with seven tackles apiece.
Perry, 157-69 in 19 seasons, won his first state title as a head coach after more than four decades of coaching. He served on AHSAA Hall of Famer Spence McCracken’s staff at Lee-Montgomery when the Generals won 6A titles in 1986, 1991 and 1992. Piedmont Coach Steve Smith, who owns a 283-81 coaching record in 28 seasons, was striving to claim his sixth. He coached Piedmont to state titles in 2009, 2015, 2016, 2019, and 2021.
“This championship was part of a three-year plan,” Perry said. “These guys started for us as freshmen and sophomores. We took our lumps, went 7-4 that first year and 10-2 last year. This group stayed together. … This is the culmination of all of that.”
The Super 7 State Championships continue Thursday at Jordan-Hare Stadium with Leroy and Pickens County battling for the 1A state crown at 3 p.m., and Charles Henderson of Troy facing Birmingham’s Ramsay Rams at 7 p.m., in the 5A finals. The 4A, 2A, and 6A championships will be Friday.
All the championship games are being televised over Alabama Public Television Network and live streamed over the NFHS Network’s subscriber-based platform. WOTM TV is producing the games. The AHSAA Radio Network is also broadcasting all seven state championships over its network of stations and its website.