by Lee Davis
If you thought Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium was a crazy place last weekend, wait until you visit Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend.
That’s when Briarwood and Hoover will attempt to win state football championships.
The Lions, coached by the venerable Fred Yancey, will be going for their first Class 5A title since 2003 when they face Spanish Fort Thursday night.
The Buccaneers, coached by Josh Niblett, will try for their second consecutive Class 6A title when they meet Daphne the following evening.
Perhaps the strongest common thread between the two teams is that it’s no surprise that either one is still playing on the first weekend in December.
Briarwood goes to the Plains with a 13-1 record, its only loss coming at the hands of Class 6A power Vestavia Hills. Yancey, who took over a struggling Lion program 21 years ago, is going for his fourth state championship as the Briarwood coach.
Before the season, Yancey predicted he would have his best offensive line since the 2003 state champions, which was probably a good omen. This Lion team has dominated most of its Class 5A opponents with ease.
Ben Craft has emerged as a first class quarterback, while running backs Sam Whitaker and Matthew Furuto have emerged as stars. Briarwood’s defense might be the best in Class 5A.
There are still some critics who whisper that private schools like Briarwood have an advantage because they “recruit.” That’s nonsense. What private schools do have is a committed base of parents and alumni who provide whatever support the school needs – financial and otherwise – to make the program successful.
If you’re ever traveling along Alabama 119, take 15 minutes to stop at Briarwood and check out its athletic facilities. You won’t find any better for a school its size anywhere in Alabama. And remember they were almost exclusively funded with private dollars.
Public schools also have fine booster programs that provide superb facilities for their young athletes, but Briarwood is the poster school for how private institutions can be competitive.
Hoover goes into Friday’s game against Daphne with a 14-0 mark and a chance to become only the second team in school history to finish without a blemish. The first unbeaten Buc team had its run to the top in 2004, led by future Navy quarterback Jarod Bryant and future University of Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer.
With all due respect to those stars, the 2010 version of the Buccaneers may be even better.
Quarterback Ryan Carter has two weapons in his arsenal — Justin McArthur and Jaylon Denson — that other schools simply can’t match. And McArthur and Denson aren’t the only ones. Hoover’s offense may have turned in its most impressive performance of the season last week, scorching a rugged Mountain Brook defense with 44 points and 483 total yards.
The Bucs’ defense has been nothing short of spectacular. It did not give up a point until the fifth game of the season and held Vestavia’s potent attack to just a single touchdown in a 35-7 rout Oct. 15.
Hoover’s kicking game is overlooked simply because ace kicker Larsen Real has rarely been needed to make a clutch field goal this year. But overall the state of Buccaneer kicking is very good.
Maybe the biggest reason for Hoover’s success is the steady hand of Niblett, who is an astonishing 41-3 since taking over the Buccaneer program three years ago. The conventional wisdom is that anyone could win with Hoover’s talent, but Niblett has brought a sense of discipline and direction that wavered at times during the turbulent final years of previous coach Rush Propst.
Niblett’s style has kept Hoover football on the sports pages – and off the front pages — which is very good news. His Hoover team lost narrowly in the 6A finals to Prattville before finally taking the title from its old nemesis last season.
But in 2010, Niblett and his team seem more confident than ever.
“The thing about Hoover is that they have so much talent and so much power,” said Mountain Brook linebacker Miller Williams after his team’s loss to Hoover last week. “If you don’t bring your A-game, you don’t have a chance, because they are that good.”
Spanish Fort and Daphne might both bring their A-games to their respective games, but it won’t be enough in either case. My thought is that Briarwood and Hoover will bring home blue championship trophies – again.
Special congratulations go to Vestavia Hills basketball coach George Hatchett, who will be inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame in March.
Success in basketball was rare for the Rebels before Hatchett took over the program in 1981. Since then, he has led Vestavia to more than 500 victories and state 6A championships in 1992 and 2009.
Just as importantly, he has been a great ambassador for the sport of high school basketball in Alabama, working at clinics across the country.
Congratulations, coach. Your award is well deserved.