By Lee Davis
When Spain Park coach Shawn Raney talks about great seasons in Jaguar football history, he’s just as likely to discuss 2007 as he is 2015.
That may seem strange because Raney wasn’t Spain Park’s coach in the 2007 season. But there’s a lesson from that year that he wants his players to carry into 2016.
“The last time Spain Park reached the state championship finals was 2007, and then we went 4-6 the next year,” Raney said. “We went to the state finals last year. We don’t want to be 4-6 this time.”
Not only that, but the Jags came within a hair of earning its first-ever Class 7A title last season, losing a 14-12 heartbreaker to McGill-Toolen. And reaching the championship finale wasn’t the only highlight. The Jags also scored two victories over arch-rival Hoover and even shut out perennial power Vestavia Hills. As summer turns to fall, Raney wants to prove that last year’s team wasn’t a one-year wonder.
“We want to develop consistency in our program,” said Raney, who begins his fifth year as head coach. “We’re trying to get to the point where we are one of the best teams in the state every year.”
There’s a good chance that Raney’s vision of the future is exactly where Spain Park will be in 2016. The Jags are solid across the board and will feature the hard-nosed ground attack that is consistent with Raney’s overall philosophy.
Leading the running game will be senior tailback Larry Wooden, who was Spain Park’s top rusher last season. He might be one of Alabama’s best running backs and is a big-time college prospect.
“Larry is an outstanding player,” Raney said. “He understands the role that our running backs need to play in our offense.”
Junior D’arie Johnson and sophomore Jalen Henderson give the Jaguars great depth in the running back positions.
The quarterback race is between senior Hunter Howell and junior Braxton Barker. Both candidates are solid runners and passers and display leadership skills, so the coaches are embracing a two-quarterback system.
Barker probably comes by his talents naturally. His father is former University of Alabama quarterback Jay Barker.
“We’re planning on playing both of our quarterbacks a lot,” Raney said.
Spain Park’s offensive line is in rebuilding mode. Former All-State center Grey Best picked up his diploma last spring. Raney will count heavily on senior linemen Will Mullins, Burrell Boswell and Bret Stover. Seniors Thomas Jordan and William Mee will be contributing at wide receiver. Newcomer Cole Starr, who played soccer last spring, is the leading hopeful for place-kicking duties.
Defensively, Raney has many holes to fill on an outstanding unit that shut out Hoover and Vestavia on consecutive weekends last season. Senior linebacker Houston Hollis may be the anchor, with help from Josiah Johnson. Tackles Douglas Henze and end Damon Wright will lead in the front. Henze won’t have any troubles in the classroom either – he carries a 4.2 GPA and earned a 33 on his ACT.
Upperclassmen Jack Connell, Cameron Toyer and Damarius Farmer lead what should be an outstanding secondary.
Spain Park won four games by three points or less on the way to a 12-2 mark in 2015, and the Jags seem to pride themselves on their ability to win in tough situations.
“The old Spain Park would have lost some of those games,” Hobbs said. “Now we know we can make the big play at the end to win.”
The key – according to Raney – is consistency as opposed to perfection. “Where people go wrong is thinking you can make every play,” he explained. “Then people start pressing. Then they make a mistake such as a blocked punt and they’re in big trouble.”
Even an early loss doesn’t faze Raney. Spain Park suffered a heartbreaking 38-35 overtime defeat against Austin on opening night last year before rebounding to win 12 straight games.
“Sometimes a coach can feel better about his team after a loss,” said Raney. “You can see the things that need to be fixed.”
Jaguar fans hope their team won’t need too much fixing, because the schedule is brutal. Once again competing in Class 7A’s Region 3, Spain Park faces Vestavia, Hoover and Mountain Brook on consecutive weekends and closes league play on the road against Oak Mountain.
“The margin of error is very small,” Raney said. “Our guys now understand what it takes to win. Our goal is to continue in that mode this year.”
Everyone around the Spain Park program will downplay it, but there’s little doubt that the Jags’ visit to Hoover on Sept. 9 is the highlight of the schedule. The Jags earned their first-ever on-the-field victory over the Bucs last season and duplicated the feat in the playoffs. The entire city of Hoover will be holding its breath this fall to see if Spain Park’s new-found success against its big rival can carry over to a new season.
“We can’t worry about Hoover or any other team,” Raney said. “All we can do is worry about ourselves.”
The truth is that Spain Park should give its opponents plenty to worry about in 2016.
Follow the link for more on the Jaguars’ star tailback Larry Wooden.