By Rubin E. Grant
Legendary Briarwood Christian football coach Fred Yancey wasn’t expecting to win his first Alabama High School Athletic Association championship in 1998.
He figured 1999 would be the year the Lions would bring home the blue map AHSAA championship trophy.
But in 1998, the Lions shocked him by going 15-0 to win their first AHSAA title, claiming the Class 3A crown.
“That was a surprise to us,” said Yancey, who retired following the 2018 season after 29 years as Briarwood’s head coach. “I think we were a year ahead of schedule. I knew we had a good team, but we didn’t have that many seniors.”
When the Lions embarked on the 1999 season, Yancey was convinced the Lions could repeat.
“We knew we were going to be really good,” Yancey said. “We had a whole bunch of juniors who carried us (to the 1998 title).
“We had a loaded team in 1999 and played great defense. Jeff Flannery was our quarterback. He wasn’t flashy, but he ran our offense, and he could run the football and he could throw it.
“Robert Gant was as good as any back in the state. Our fullback Jason Ogletree was a killer blocker. Tim Castille was a freshman and was a terrific athlete.”
The Lions did as expected, repeating as Class 3A champions.
The 1999 team will be recognized during a ceremony honoring Yancey on Oct. 4, when Briarwood plays its 2019 homecoming game against John Carroll Catholic.
Not a Perfect Season
Unlike the 1998 team, the Lions were not undefeated in 1999. They opened the season with two convincing victories, but in the third week they traveled to Mobile and fell 31-26 to UMS-Wright, snapping the Lions’ 32-game regular season winning streak.
“They weren’t as good as we were, but we had five turnovers,” Yancey said. “After the game, UMS coach Terry Curtis came up to me and said, ‘Y’all are going to win the state.’”
The Lions suffered an even bigger blow in the loss to UMS-Wright when Gant suffered a season-ending knee injury, tearing his ACL.
Without Gant, the Lions won their next two games to improve to 4-1. But in the sixth week, defending Class 4A champion Deshler from Tuscumbia visited, seeking revenge for a 24-6 loss to Briarwood the previous season. It had been Deshler’s only setback in 1998 as it won the 4A title.
Deshler got its revenge, beating the Lions 42-35.
“It was a great game between two terrific teams and they beat us,” Yancey said. “They went on to win the state (4A title) again.”
Briarwood didn’t lose another game, reeling off nine consecutive victories to earn their second straight title and finish 13-2.
The turning point came in the Lions’ eighth game, when they beat Vincent 42-16 and Yancey made a crucial decision at the suggestion of Vincent coach Don Harris.
“After Robert got hurt, we moved Tim to tailback and he was terrific,” Yancey said, “but we lost our wide out threat because we didn’t have anyone else who could do what Tim could do.
“After we beat Vincent, their coach came over and told me we needed to give Jason the ball more. He said he’s your best player on the field. And I said, ‘Coach, you’re right.’”
So, Yancey moved linebacker Daniel Avery to fullback and moved Ogletree to tailback, but not without some pushback from his assistant coaches.
“Some of the defensive coaches came to me and asked me to talk (Coach Yancey) out of doing it,” said Jay Mathews, who was the Lions’ offensive coordinator and quarterback coach and is now the school’s athletics director. “I said, ‘No, we’re going to make this work.’”
The move paid big dividends. “Jason was a great tailback,” Yancey said. “That’s when we became a great team again.”
Briarwood was at their best in the playoffs, outscoring their five postseason opponents 179-50.
“In the first 10 games, we were winning but we were not having too great a season,” Mathews said. “But in the first week of the playoffs, it all came alive. We were the hottest team in the state for five weeks.”
The Lions routed Lincoln 55-19 in the championship game. Ogletree ran for 117 yards and four touchdowns and was named MVP. Flannery completed 11 of 15 passes for 131 yards and a TD and ran for 48 yards and another score. Avery had a 27-yard touchdown run and sophomore Nate Anderson caught two touchdown passes while Castille dealt with a leg injury sustained in the first quarter.
“We had a lot of sophomores step up and fill in,” Flannery recalled.
Flannery, Ogletree, Castille, offensive lineman Jeremy Ingle and place-kicker Graham Wilson were all named first-team All-State.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Flannery, who’s now a dentist with Oak Mountain Pediatric Dentistry. “We had a great group of guys and a solid group of coaches, who taught us values and principles that we could carry into life.”