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SEFFNER — The tears that fell last Friday, following the biggest win of his life, weren’t the first to streak down Josh Grady’s cheeks this season.
Eleven weeks before sobbing out of raw rapture, in the wake of a winning 44-yard field goal on the last play of the state semifinals, Armwood’s senior quarterback was weeping over a loss.
Of his best receiver.
Stubble hadn’t even sprouted on the 2010 season when Grady learned Purdue commitment A.J. King had been lost with a torn ACL.
“I probably cried more than him,” Grady said. “When he got hurt …and the doctor came over here and he was like, ‘It’s six to 12 weeks,’ or something like that, I was blown. I’m thinking, ‘When we play Dwyer who am I going to throw to?’ and everything like that.”
With King sidelined, Grady now had exactly 11 receptions returning from the 2009 season, and nine of those belonged to tailback Matt Jones. He needed youngsters to step up, rookies to man up. He needed emergence.
He got excellence, in the form of the 10th-grade tandem of Alvin Bailey and Ronnie Thomas.
“We just had to go to the next guy,” Thomas said.
They enter Saturday’s Class 4A title game with 65 combined catches for 1,243 yards and 16 touchdowns. Bailey (34 catches, 604 yards) is averaging more than 17 yards a catch; Thomas (31 catches, 639 yards) more than 20.
“Having them play the way they’re playing …that’s huge for us,” Grady said.
For all of Grady’s fortitude when flushed from the pocket last week, and for all of Matt Jones’ rushing yardage and Kyle Wilcox’s helmet-busting blocks, Bailey and Thomas were no less significant in that exhilarating 22-20 win against Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer.
Thomas had four catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yarder on play-action that featured a pivotal crack-back block by Bailey on the cornerback.
On the game’s next-to-last play, Bailey caught a Grady pass on a little button-hook pattern and scampered out of bounds for a 12-yard gain with five seconds remaining to put kicker Ash Dudney in range for his winning field goal.
“When they started this season they were sophomores. Now I don’t look at them that way; I look at them as midseason juniors,” said receivers coach Isaac Anderson, a 1996 Armwood graduate.
“Playing 15 games, that pretty much puts you at a season and a half at this point. They really have stepped up. I’m very, very proud of them.”
Bailey, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound possession receiver, is a younger sibling of former Hawks all-state fullback Kalvin Bailey. He quarterbacked Armwood’s junior varsity last season, once scoring on a busted play on fourth and 50.
“Alvin has that ‘it’ factor about him,” offensive coordinator Evan Davis said.
It doesn’t hurt that he possesses the “hit” factor as well.
“On the Sickles (playoff) game when I had my best game of the year rushing, he’s pancaking DBs 20 or 30 yards down the field,” Grady said.
“Receivers, they don’t really understand that in high school. Coach Anderson’s preached that a lot to him, and he’s definitely one of the best complete receivers I’ve had.”
Thomas, the 6-foot, 169-pound speedster, enters Saturday’s contest tied for the school’s season record for touchdown catches (10).
As a freshman, he ran the third leg on the Hawks’ 4x400-meter relay team that placed seventh at the 3A state meet.
“If it’s third and 30, there’s no one that can beat him on a go route or anything like that,” Grady said. “Any time you need a big play you go to him.”
De facto brothers off the field, the two enter the biggest game of their life as battered as they are bonded. Thomas has a sore rib and dinged-up collarbone. Both are nursing bruises on the big toe of their left foot. Time to exceed the pain threshold.
To this point, they’ve exceeded everything else.
“Since A.J. fell down,” Grady said, “they’ve been playing like seniors.”