By Lee Davis
As the 2014 high school football season opened, almost all observers agreed it would be memorable in at least two ways.
First, the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s reclassification offered up a four-region, 32-school “super division”–better known as Class 7A. Second, 2014 would be the year Vestavia Hills coach Buddy Anderson earned his 310th career victory to become the winningest coach in the history of high school football in this state.
As the calendar turns from September to October, the jury is still out on the final impact of Class 7A, and Anderson–as expected–has gained his 310th win. But for Over the Mountain football, these stories are nearly equaled by surprises, both good and not so good.
Who would have dreamed, for example, that:
Hoover, widely predicted to win its third straight state championship, would open with two consecutive losses, albeit both defeats came at the hands of out-of-state powers?
Oak Mountain, generally expected to finish in the bottom half of Class 7A’s Region 3, would enter the new month with as many overall victories as Vestavia and Mountain Brook combined?
Spain Park’s roller coaster season would include a 5-3 win over Austin that looks like a baseball score and a 64-63 quadruple overtime loss to Hewitt-Trussville that resembles a basketball score?
And that’s just the beginning.
Since several area schools enjoyed the night off last Friday, let’s take an overview of each team at the approximate halfway point of the regular season.
Oak Mountain: With the possible exception of Anderson’s record, the work of Coach Cris Bell and his Eagles might be the biggest story of 2014 so far. An opening win over Class 6A’s Hillcrest of Tuscaloosa didn’t draw much attention, but Oak Mountain showed it might be headed toward a special season with a 14-7 overtime upset of Vestavia the following week. One of the great ironies of that game was that Daniel Salchert, the son of former Rebel quarterback Danny Salchert, played a key role for the Eagles in the victory.
Oak Mountain came back to earth in its third game, losing to Hoover 35-0, but has rallied nicely with impressive wins over Tuscaloosa County and Briarwood. Nothing will be easy for the Eagles the rest of the way as they play three of their final four region games on the road. For the moment however, Oak Mountain is climbing and Bell is the frontrunner for Over the Mountain Coach of the Year.
Hoover: When the Bucs lost their opener to Miami Central on a last-minute field goal, few Hoover fans were concerned. After all, Central is one of the finest programs in talent-rich South Florida, and the game was essentially a standoff. But when the Bucs were thrashed the following week by Colquitt County, guided by former Hoover coach Rush Propst, some Hoover boosters begin to get nervous.
Since then, the Bucs have started to look like their old selves, winning three consecutive Region 3 games by a combined margin of 103-6. Hoover showed an impressive defensive effort in a 12-0 shutout of Mountain Brook and dominated in wins over Oak Mountain and Thompson. Despite the unexpectedly slow start, the Bucs remain a favorite to win the Class 7A title. This Friday’s visit to archrival Spain Park will answer a lot of questions as to whether this Hoover team is on par with some of its illustrious predecessors.
Spain Park: Some Jaguar fans may be disappointed in their team’s 3-2 start, but Spain Park has never been dull in 2014. Even the low scoring opener against Austin was filled with drama and excitement. And the one-point heartbreaker to a suddenly-red hot Hewitt-Trussville team could easily have gone the other way. The only outlier was a hard-to-explain 26-7 loss to Tuscaloosa County.
October will tell the tale for the Jags as they face region foes Hoover, Vestavia, Oak Mountain and Mountain Brook on consecutive Fridays. All of these games are winnable for Spain Park, but coming out of that foursome with a 3-1 mark would be a lot to celebrate as well.
Vestavia Hills: The Rebels’ 14-3 win over Hewitt-Trussville on Sept. 12 made Anderson this state’s all-time winningest coach. His very first win came against the Huskies 36 years ago. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Vestavia has lost its last two games, falling to Mountain Brook 14-11 and to resurgent Class 6A power Oxford 35-14. It’s rare to see Vestavia at 2-3 at midseason, but there’s a reason why Anderson has won 310 games–his teams never give up.
The Rebels will be favored at home against Thompson before facing Spain Park, Hoover and Tuscaloosa County in a row. That trio of games could well determine whether Vestavia moves on to the playoffs. The road looks tough, but Anderson has seen it all before.
Mountain Brook: The Spartans may be the hard-luck team of the season’s first half. Their 2-3 record could almost as easily be 4-1. Huntsville started the frustration with a winning field goal in the final 31 seconds to upset Mountain Brook 22-21 on opening night. Then James Clemens used a last-second field goal to upend the Spartans 29-26 last week. Sandwiched in between were three solid performances from Mountain Brook–a respectable loss to Hoover and wins over Thompson and Vestavia.
Suffering last-second losses in close games can test a team’s character, for better or worse. Mountain Brook still has plenty of opportunities with important battles with Tuscaloosa County, Oak Mountain, Hewitt-Trussville and Spain Park over the next four games. The Spartans can will them all; their fans just hope the contests don’t come down to last-second field goals.
Homewood: Ben Berguson’s debut as new coach of the Patriots got off to a slow start with a close loss to Decatur and a defeat at the hands of Class 7A rival Vestavia. In its last three games, Homewood has looked similar to the Patriots of old with wins over Pelham, Briarwood and John Carroll Catholic.
The Patriots face three of their final four Class 6A, Region 5 opponents in the friendly confines of Waldrop Stadium and have a solid shot at the league title. But Homewood fans should be cautioned: In 2014 there is no such thing as a certainty.
Briarwood: The Lions have struggled to a 2-3 beginning, but Coach Fred Yancey has overcome slow beginnings in the past to produce memorable seasons. Briarwood opened with a one-point loss to Chelsea and has produced quality wins over Jackson-Olin and Hueytown. The Lions were soundly beaten by Homewood and Oak Mountain, but that’s no disgrace.
As is the case with virtually every other team, Briarwood has four crucial region games (Class 6A, Region 5) in the next month. The Lions’ next three battles against Walker, Pelham and Minor could all be ranked as near-tossups, with Briarwood likely a heavy favorite against John Carroll Catholic on Oct. 24. Expect the Lions to pass most of their tests and reach the post-season again.
John Carroll: The Cavs were competitive in their opener, losing to St. Clair County 28-22. The bottom dropped out in a 64-14 loss to Walker in the second game. Since then John Carroll has fallen to Hueytown, Homewood and Mortimer Jordan, and things don’t look to get much easier down the road.
The best chance for a win may come this Friday, as the Cavaliers go on the road to play Jackson-Olin. Coach Tim Sanders and his players have a lot of heart, but usually just not enough depth. If they keep working, good days will come.
Shades Mountain Christian: The Eagles won their opener against Jacksonville Christian before losing four straight. And while Shades Mountain isn’t likely to reach the playoffs in 2014, Coach Dickey Wright knows how to set things in the right direction. The Eagles will make the playoffs in due time; the only question is how soon.