By Lee Davis
Mountain Brook coach Chris Yeager insists that he doesn’t dwell on the past, but nobody could blame him for still having nightmares about what happened to his team in 2014.
The Spartans lost three times on – literally – the last play of the game on the way to a disappointing 3-7 season. They came within a few minutes of a couple of additional wins.
“Last season may be an incentive for our kids, but I try to focus on the here and now,” Yeager said. “We can’t do anything about the past. We’ve had excellent concentration and effort in our off-season work, and I think it’ll pay off for us this time. I don’t go around with a chip on my shoulder. We’re just here to do battle.”
Offensively, the Spartans struggled with turnover ratio and third down conversions, and correcting those numbers is a priority as fall practice opens.
“Those were not acceptable,” Yeager said. “We’ve got to do a better job of protecting the ball and executing with more consistency on third down. These areas are obtainable places for improvement.”
In competition for the starting quarterback position is senior Connor Adair and sophomore Hamp Sission. Adair is a prototypical passer, while Sisson is more dangerous on the run.
“We’ll have a good situation at quarterback,” he said. “We can win with either of them.”
The lead running back is senior Harrison Pyburn, but the coach would like to see more depth. Owen Conzelman or Clay Sterns, both sophomores, will see action at H-back or tight end.
Either Adair or Sisson will have a fine array of receivers as targets. Senior Dillon Sullivan, juniors J.P. Darnall and Sims Herron and sophomore Sean Elmore have star potential.
Yeager has a solid nucleus in the offensive line as three starters return. Senior Rix Curtis is a leader at center and tackles Price Delk and Lawton Sparks are secure in the tackle slots. “We are in search of good guards,” the coach said. In the mix are Drew Brown, Christian Johnston, Johnny Leara and John Pelham.
If Mountain Brook finds itself in many close games this fall, Yeager can feel good about his kicking situation. Senior Harrison Ritchie and junior Mason Dillard have been outstanding in the off-season. Yeager said he thinks Ritchie is more likely to handle extra points and field goals, while Dillard is expected to be the kick-off man.
The best news for the Spartans defensively is the return of standout linebacker Joe Donald, who was injured much of the season. “Joe is a special player. He has great ability to move from sideline to sideline and mental quickness,” said Yeager. “I wish we had 22 athletes just like him. His presence lifts everyone’s mindset.”
That’s not to say that Donald is Mountain Brook’s only defensive asset. “What was impressive was that our defense didn’t collapse when we lost Joe,” he said. “If it had, we wouldn’t have had all those close games in the first place.”
The Spartans’ defense looks rugged overall. Sam Colvin and Eland Anthony, both juniors, will be the ends, while sophomore Joe Byrd will get extensive work.
Donald is the leader of what should be a promising group of linebackers. Will Wesler, Mabry Crane, and Kemper Sanders will be among the inside corps. Mac Campbell, Connor Bussman, and Tanner Dean are on the outside. “We’ve got some good options at linebacker,” Yeager said.
Mountain Brook’s secondary looks solid, and Yeager believes it will improve with experience. Zach Carroll is the free safety, while Drew Smith, Chandler Cox and Joey Kennedy battle for the cornerback slots. Junior Michael O’Leary is the safety.
“We don’t have a lot of experience in some positions,” Yeager said. “The biggest challenge for young players is to get adjusted to the speed of the game.”
The 2014 season marked the creation of the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s 32-team Class 7A, comprised of the state’s largest schools, which included Mountain Brook. Yeager didn’t see much difference from previous years.
“There may have been a greater concentration of talent,” he said. “But other than that, our region was just as tough as it has always been.”
And for sure 2015 will be no exception. The Spartans will again compete in Class 7A Region 3 with long-time rivals Hoover, Spain Park and Vestavia Hills, in addition to Hewitt-Trussville, Oak Mountain, Thompson and Tuscaloosa County.
The good news is that Mountain Brook draws Hoover, Vestavia and Oak Mountain at home. “Sometimes I feel like we are competing in the SEC Western Division,” Yeager said, smiling. “If there’s a tougher region than this, I’d like to see it.”
In a division so competitive, the margin of victory or defeat can be tiny, as the Spartans learned so painfully last season. “Most teams now are just separated by shades of gray,” he said. “It’s just a matter of working hard every day to get better.”
Yeager is optimistic about the upcoming season, but he tempered his feelings. “I’ve been very pleased with the work ethic and attitude last spring and in the off-season,” he said. “Football is a combative, collision sport. Until you get in real game conditions, it’s like shadow boxing. But I think we’ll be competitive.”
If the coach is right, Mountain Brook should be good enough to pull out some last-second victories in 2015.