By Lee Davis
Anyone who has followed the Hoover-Vestavia Hills football rivalry over the years knows that when the two get together on the field, anything can happen.
But what made the 2013 renewal of the series unique was that everything seemed to happen in 48 minutes of gridiron war before a large crowd at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
There were big plays, drama, a controversial call and most of all, a lot of defense. And when the smoke finally cleared, the Bucs had earned a hard-fought 17-7 win over the team that has given them the most trouble over the years.
Hoover improved its record to 5-0 while Vestavia fell to 4-1 as the Bucs earned their fifth consecutive triumph over the Rebels. For all of its hype, the game did not have any impact on any region race, as the two compete in different circuits.
Perhaps the biggest story of the night was the play of Hoover’s defense. Vestavia’s potent attack was held to only 100 yards for the evening. The Buc defenders were particularly stingy in the first half, holding the Rebels to a mere 28 yards of total offense. Vestavia punted 12 times in the game.
On the other hand, the Rebels’ defensive unit didn’t exactly embarrass itself. Hoover started four drives in Vestavia territory in the first half, and the hosts came away with only three points. Hunter Schmith’s 21-yard field goal gave the Bucs a 3-0 lead with 1:46 remaining in the opening quarter.
The game’s most controversial–and arguably biggest–play took place in the second quarter. Hoover quarterback Jack Hutcheson launched a 37-yard bomb to ace receiver Justin Johnson in the end zone. Johnson and Vestavia defender William Hillburn appeared to have caught the ball simultaneously in the end zone. The official ruled the catch was a touchdown. Replays broadcast by local television stations were inconclusive.
“I guess all the work in the weight room paid off,” Johnson said later. “I wasn’t going to let him take it away from me.”
Hillburn’s version of the play was understandably different.
“I came over the top on him and jumped up and had the ball in my stomach. Then I came to the ground, and all of the sudden he (Johnson) is on top of me,” the senior defensive back said. “He’s trying to get to the ball. I look up, and the referees are talking about the tie going to the receiver and signaling touchdown.”
For the record, the high school rulebook does say that if a forward pass is caught simultaneously by two opponents, “the ball becomes dead and belongs to the passing team.” Also for the record, high school officials, unlike those in major college and professional football, do not have the luxury of looking at instant replays.
Schmith’s extra point kick gave Hoover a 10-0 advantage that lasted until halftime.
Vestavia got a big opportunity in the third quarter after recovering a fumbled punt return by Marlon Humphrey on the Buc 28-yard line. Two plays later, Jordan Johnson scored on a 13-yard dash. Jack Hatchett’s conversion sliced Hoover’s advantage to 10-7 with nearly 10 minutes to play in the period.
The Bucs responded offensively by going to their running game. Junior speedster Bradrick Shaw shouldered much of the burden, producing runs of 28 and 14 yards. The 14-yarder reached the end zone, giving Hoover a 10-point margin with five minutes remaining in the frame.
Shaw finished with 111 yards on 15 rushing attempts.
The rest of the game was an intense defensive battle, with neither team making any serious offensive headway. The Rebels didn’t complete a pass until late in the game. Hoover’s normally potent air game wasn’t spectacular either, with only eight of 19 passes completed.
One of those completions, of course, was the Bucs’ controversial touchdown. Did Johnson’s touchdown catch make a difference in the game? Probably. Would Vestavia have won if the pass had been ruled intercepted? Possibly. Will fans of both schools be talking about the play for years? Certainly.
Vestavia coach Buddy Anderson, who was foiled in his first attempt to earn his 301st career victory, spoke with characteristic class after the game.
“Hoover has a great team,” Anderson said. “I’m really proud of our kids. They battled hard and came up a little short. We’ll learn from this and go on and get better.”
Jordan Johnson led the Rebel ground attack with 61 yards on 19 carries.
The best news of the night may be that Hoover and Vestavia are likely to meet again in the post-season. A look at both schedules shows that the Bucs and Rebels are likely to be favorites in all of their remaining games. A late round playoff rematch is a distinct possibility–and would be good for high school football in Alabama.
As baseball legend Ernie Banks might have said, Hoover-Vestavia is a beautiful rivalry; let’s play two.