By Lee Davis
Many championship teams have played at Bryant-Denny Stadium over the past nine decades.
Most of them defeated a team from Auburn, Ala., in the process.
The latest to check both boxes turned the trick Friday night as the Hoover Bucs defeated Auburn High School 20-3, earning their second consecutive Class 6A title and eighth since 2000.
The Bucs dominated the season in a way few teams have done previously, posting a perfect 15-0 record and extending their winning streak to 30 consecutive games.
“I’m so proud of our kids and coaches,” said Hoover coach Josh Niblett as he dried off from a cold Gatorade bath he had received minutes earlier. “Everyone did a tremendous job. I can’t say enough about our seniors. They left a great legacy for a program that is already filled with tradition.”
Unlike earlier victories, the Bucs didn’t pile up eye-popping numbers in overcoming the Tigers. They relied on big plays and timely defense.
“I couldn’t care less about the statistics,” Niblett said. “This was two great defenses going against each other. It was going to take a total team effort for us to win, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Total team play means winning a game even when the offense is struggling. Hoover netted only 138 total yards and six first downs but still won by more than two touchdowns.
“The only statistic I know is that we are 15-0 and won a state title,” Niblett said. “That’s all that matters.”
His team’s first opportunity came late in the first quarter. With Auburn punting on a fourth-and-seven at its 28-yard line, Micah Bagley blocked Justin Farmer’s punt. Chris DeMoss recovered the ball in the end zone for the touchdown. Hunter Schmith’s extra point gave the Bucs a 7-0 at the end of the period.
“Micah is a guy who has made a lot of big plays for us,” Niblett said. “It was good to see him make a big play like that when he’s worked hard all year to put himself in that position.”
Neither team could generate a significant offensive threat in the second quarter, and Hoover’s slim lead stood up until halftime.
Auburn appeared capable of making a game of it early in the third quarter. The Tigers forced a Hoover punt and drove to the Bucs’ 18-yard line. Sage Ledbetter’s 35-yard field goal cut the margin to 7-3 with 6:53 remaining in the stanza.
Hoover got a break later in the quarter when Farmer fumbled the snap on a punt attempt, giving the Bucs the ball at Auburn’s 27. Hoover couldn’t capitalize as Schmith’s 39-yard field goal attempt fell short.
Any momentum the Tigers may have generated didn’t last long. Hoover’s Marlon Humphrey stripped Auburn’s Tyrus Flakes of the ball, and Bagley recovered at the Tigers’ 41.
“Every Tuesday in practice, we call it ‘Turnover Tuesday,’ and we try to force turnovers any way we can,” Humphrey said later. “This one wound up being a big play for us.”
Hoover exploited the opportunity three plays later. Quarterback Jack Hutcheson dumped a short pass to Bradrick Shaw, who raced 39 yards for the touchdown. The extra point attempt failed, but the Bucs led 13-3 with 1:56 on the clock in the third period.
The final dagger to Auburn’s championship hopes came early in the fourth quarter. Humphrey returned a punt 18 yards to the Tiger 38. After a personal foul penalty moved the ball to the 23, Hoover methodically drove to the goal. Shaw’s one-yard run on fourth down gave the Bucs their final 20-3 margin.
Hutcheson completed four of nine passes for 51 yards. Shaw gained 53 yards on the ground on 21 carries as Hoover totaled only 138 yards. As Niblett kept saying, this game wasn’t about numbers.
“We could have gained 138 yards or 13.8 yards,” he said. “This was a slugfest. There was tough sledding inside the box for both sides.”
The coach may not be a big numbers guy, but there were some digits that have to impress anyone. In addition to 30 straight victories and two consecutive championships, Hoover has now played in the Class 6A championship game every year since 2008–Niblett’s first season at the helm.
After winning the title in 2009, Hoover lost the championship game by one point each in the next two seasons. You can make the case that the Bucs are four points away from five consecutive state championships.
As it is, Hoover has compiled a mind-numbing 84-6 worksheet under Niblett. That’s a winning percentage of 93 percent.
Perhaps just as significantly if not more subjectively, he has achieved the nearly impossible task of inheriting one of the best high school programs in the nation from former coach Rush Propst–and making it better than ever.
So how much better can Hoover get? Nobody knows, but just like that other team that wins so much at Bryant-Denny Stadium, don’t expect the Bucs to be going away anytime soon.