By Blake Ells
Mountain Brook entered the 2018 season with big holes to fill. They’d need a new quarterback, as Hamp Sisson had moved on to Furman, and they’d need a new running back, as Harold Joiner had moved on to Auburn.
When they kicked off with those positions being filled by a sophomore and by a committee, respectively, there wasn’t much cause for high preseason expectations.
But the Spartans stormed out of the gate with seven straight wins en route to a 9-3 finish. Their season concluded with a second-round playoff loss to Hoover.
“We were following a year where the offense led the team, but we had 10 guys coming back on defense,” said coach Chris Yeager. “The sophomore quarterback probably worried me more than anything, but I felt like everyone was able to rally around him and make it work.”
For overcoming such difficult odds in the state’s toughest high school region, Yeager has been named by his peers as the Over the Mountain Journal Coach of the Year.
“We were a running football team,” said Yeager. “And I think we were able to control the clock and keep the defense off the field. I think they complemented one another unbelievably.
“We played great defense, but one of the reasons that we played great defense is because the offense was holding onto the ball. Daniel Wilbanks, A.J. Gates and Stother Gibbs were getting 4 and 5 and 6 yards a play. They were getting a lot of rest over there and getting to suck down a lot of Gatorade in the meantime.”
Wilbanks, Gates and Gibbs served as the committee replacing Joiner, and when Wilbanks was injured midseason, Sam Higgins carried some of the load, too. Returning wide receiver Hamp Greene also contributed to the run game, making five talents that allowed the Spartans to stay fresh.
Yeager added significant experience to his coaching staff this season, including defensive coordinator Robert Evans, who had been with the Bucs. Also among those additions were Blake Boren, who came to the Spartans from Faulkner University, and experienced defensive coordinators Richard Kelly and Chris Cournoyer.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we’ve got two guys that have been head coaches and every one of them has been a defensive coordinator,” Yeager said. “Bringing all of that energy and all of that knowledge, putting egos aside and realizing that we’re doing this for the kids and we’re doing this for one another made the thing go.”
That staff was given a lot of experience to work with, too. With 10 seniors, some of whom had been starting since they were sophomores, Yeager feared that if his defense couldn’t improve on its performance from a year ago, the Spartans would struggle.
The Younger Yeager Generation
Led by Yeager’s son, senior middle linebacker Colton, the improvement was significant. For his part in leading that turnaround, Colton Yeager has been named by the area’s coaches as Defensive Player of the Year.
“Colton grew up on those practice fields and in that field house,” the elder Yeager said. “I’ll never forget when he first learned to walk. My wife brought him to our practice field, and I saw him take his first steps on our practice field. I’ve still got a picture of that hanging on his wall. All of these players that have come through, he knows their names. As he leaves the program, I feel like a little part of all of these coaches and players that have been through here is leaving with him.”
Coach Yeager and Colton didn’t interact directly with each other much on the football field, as the elder Yeager’s focus was on offense. But during Colton’s career on his father’s team, the two enjoyed strategizing away from the team in their home film room.
“We’d watch film at home and he’d try to give me some pointers from back when he used to play defense,” Colton said. “It was really cool to always have my dad there with me and to have him at my side throughout my career. It was really special for me.”
Colton can’t recall a time when Mountain Brook football wasn’t at the center of his life. He grew up in the middle of it.
“Early in elementary school, I’d get done with school and come straight up to the practice field,” Colton said. “I’d hang out all of practice. I became the ball boy. Seeing those guys and the brotherhood that they had inspired me. I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I got older.”
In sixth grade, he committed himself to becoming a better athlete. He played football, baseball and basketball throughout middle school, but a stress fracture ended his basketball career in eighth grade. A two-sport star throughout high school, Colton has signed to play baseball next season at Wallace State.
Colton was born in 2000, one year after his father arrived at Mountain Brook. This year’s senior class was one that coach Yeager has known well their entire lives. He’s thankful for some advice he received years ago, advice that allowed him to balance his career with the ability to watch Colton grow up.
“Greg Morrow coached our middle school for years, and he pulled me aside when Colton was going into the seventh grade,” Yeager said. “We were playing Gardendale and they were playing Homewood. He pulled me aside and he said, ‘I know you had a game going on, but let me tell you this, dad: There are only so many grains of sand in that hourglass. And when they’re gone, they’re going to be gone. You need to savor every one of them.”
Spending a lifetime looking up to the greatest athletes at Mountain Brook inspired Colton. He credits Buddy Pell as being the biggest influence in his younger years.
“I got to spend time with him on several big church retreats,” Colton said. “I got to grow up watching him play, and he was one of the biggest influences in my life.”
Pell wasn’t his only influencer. Colton was granted an opportunity to see many impressive players and coaches throughout his youth. As such, his father is certain that he’s well prepared for the next chapter.
“I’m very grateful, because he’s been around some of the most incredible young men that have come through here,” Yeager said, “guys that he can model his life after. The unbelievable opportunity to coach your son is more than I could ever expect.”
Colton hopes to stay close to the program when his baseball career allows it. He feels confident that his senior class set an example that a youthful unit will live up to next season. They’ll have big shoes to fill in 2019.
“We’re losing 10 guys on defense, so we’re going to find out how good those defensive coaches are,” coach Yeager laughed.