By Rubin E. Grant
In the book “Tales from Alabama Prep Football,” Buddy Anderson described his introduction to the Vestavia Hills-Berry football rivalry.
“Vestavia opened in 1970 and most of the kids who came to Vestavia had been going to Berry,” Anderson recalled. “We opened the ’72 season against Berry and they had a good team. We had some players who had a choice that year to finish at Berry or Vestavia, and most of the good athletes stayed at Berry.
“We had a pep rally in the school auditorium. I’d been to a lot of pep rallies, and they had always been about school spirit, but that day half of the students cheered for Vestavia and half cheered for Berry. I was blown away by that.”
Anderson, who had grown up in Thomasville, was a young assistant coach at Vestavia Hills at the time. Berry won the inaugural encounter 45-0. “They beat us every way you can be beaten,” Anderson said.
Anderson has been involved in every game the Rebels and Buccaneers have played, during 39 years as Vestavia Hill’s head coach, including the ones since Berry became Hoover in 1994.
He will be on the sidelines Friday when the Rebels renew their rivalry against the Bucs at 7p.m. at Thompson Reynolds Stadium/ Buddy Anderson Field.
“It’s still a big rivalry,” Anderson said. “A lot of things have changed through the years, but our kids know their kids and their kids know our kids, and the cities are next to one another.
“They have been our biggest rivalry since 1972. Mountain Brook is our oldest rival, Homewood is a rival and we’ve played Shades Valley since 1973. We’re the only Over the Mountain school still playing all of them. But Hoover is our biggest rivalry by far.”
In his early years as head coach, Anderson matched wits with the late legendary Berry coach Bob Finley. “Coach Finley was the greatest competitor I ever coached against,” Anderson said.
Although Anderson is the winningest high school coach in state history, with a 328-144 record, he has a losing record of 19-27 against the Bucs and has seen Hoover dominate the series since the turn of the century.
The Rebels are 6-17 against the Bucs since 2000, including a forfeit victory in 2007. The Bucs rolled to a 38-7 victory in their 2016 clash.
Niblett Enters the Fray
Josh Niblett, in his 10th season as head coach at Hoover, used to observe the rivalry from afar.
“I knew a little about the rivalry before I got here,” Niblett said. “In the early 2000s, it was not only for the region title, but for the state championship because when they met in the playoffs, it decided who was going to represent the north in the championship game. Hoover had to beat Vestavia to get to the finals or semifinals.
“The second year I was here, they beat us in the regular season, but we beat them in the playoffs. Multiple years we played them twice, once in the quarterfinals and in the semifinals.”
Niblett enjoys being part of the long-running rivalry as a coach. He is 10-2 against the Rebels during his tenure. Hoover/Berry leads the alltime series 32-20.
“There’s a lot of passion in it and once you’re in it, you know how important it is,” he said. “I liken it to Alabama and Tennessee when I played at Alabama. Auburn was always our biggest rival, but you knew that the third Saturday in October against Tennessee mattered.
“Hatred might be too harsh of a word for the Hoover-Vestavia rivalry, but I think you can call it mutual respect – even if the fans might not want to say it. We definitely have a lot of respect for them and their tradition. You have two rich traditions and that’s what makes it special – and it’s always a pivotal game.”
Niblett, however, admitted that some of the intensity of the rivalry might be lost on some of his players because of the emergence of crosstown rival Spain Park.
“I still think it’s a big rivalry, but it’s a little bit of transition because of how well Spain Park has played the last 10 years,” Niblett said. “Once they beat us twice two years ago, it added to our rivalry with them. And anytime you’re in the same city, it’s going to be a big rivalry. It’s a big rivalry for our kids now.
“When Spain Park was first created, Hoover owned the matchup. It was lopsided. When Hoover became Hoover after being Berry and they split Hoover and created Spain Park, it’s looked at as more of a rivalry than Vestavia by our players. They don’t know about the Hoover-Vestavia rivalry in the mid-90s. They see Spain Park now, so I have to educate them more about it now.”
Rebels Know What It’s All About
Anderson doesn’t have to educate his players about the rivalry. They understand.
“It’s a tough ball game, but our kids look forward to playing them,” Anderson said. “Before we went to 7A, one year we were in a different region. People came up to me and said you’ve still (got) to play Hoover. It wasn’t just our players who said that, but kids in our school and our fans.”
Vestavia Hills senior safety-wide receiver Spencer Lawson has been engrossed by the rivalry for practically his entire life. He started attending the games when he was 6 years old.
“I thought it was kind of crazy the way everybody was into it,” Lawson said. “Plus, I always loved watching all the athletes.”
Now that he’s one of the athletes who plays in the game, Lawson said it’s still a crazy atmosphere, especially on the field.
“Throughout the years there have always been upsets and anything can happen, especially when you have the home field crowd behind you,” Lawson said. “When you hear your crowd, especially when you’re the underdog, you start feeling that adrenalin and you start making plays you didn’t think you could make.”
The rivalry turned ugly for a while when Rush Propst was the Bucs’ head coach, from 2000-2007. There were accusations of dirty play from both sides.
Anderson didn’t want to dwell on the bitterness of the rivalry during those years. He acknowledged that it’s not acrimonious now.
“Their coaches do a good job and they’re well-coached and athletic,” Anderson said. “Talent-wise, we’re not as good as they are of late, but we pulled one out against them two years ago.”
The Rebels won the 2015 regular season contest 20-13, but the Bucs avenged the setback with a 24-0 victory in the second round of the playoffs.
This season, the Bucs are 6-1, 5-0 in Class 7A Region 3, while the Rebels are 3-4, 2-3 in the region.
Vestavia Hills suffered a heartbreaking 17-10 overtime loss at Mountain Brook last Friday, but Anderson expects the Rebels to be ready for Hoover.
“Our kids laid it on the line against Mountain Brook and I feel comfortable they’re going to do that again against Hoover,” Anderson said.
Lawson would like nothing better than to pull off a monumental upset. “It would be a good way to turn our season around,” he said.
Niblett is expecting another highly competitive battle.
“You know going into a game against Vestavia, they’re always going to be opportunistic and going to come at you hard out of (the) gate,” Niblett said. “Our schemes might be different, but we’re both going to be physical, play good defense, run the ball and throw it when we want to.”
Whatever happens, another riveting chapter will be added to the BucsRebels (or Rebels-Bucs) lore. ❖