For a team ranked number one in Class 5A, the Briarwood Lions’ season opener wasn’t going too well.
Traveling across the Alabama-Georgia line Aug. 26 to face Eagle’s Landing Academy, a perennial powerhouse in the Peach State, Coach Fred Yancey’s team found itself trailing 18-7 at halftime.
Briarwood senior quarterback Ben Craft said that despite the score, nobody hit the panic button.
“We were all very calm and businesslike,” Craft said. “The coaches didn’t yell at us or anything like that. We just corrected our mistakes and went back to work – just as a confident team should.”
The results spoke for themselves. Craft’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Furuto in the third quarter cut Eagle’s Landing’s lead to 18-14.
Then – with less than two minutes in the game – Craft scored on a one-yard plunge to give the Lions a dramatic 21-18 victory and a happy bus ride back home.
“It was exciting for us come back and get the win,” said Craft. “The fact that they (Eagle’s Landing) are one of the best teams in Georgia made it even better.”
Craft is the triggerman for a team determined to win a state title. Last year, Briarwood came close, falling to Spanish Fort 14-0 in the Class 5A final.
This year, Craft thinks his team will improve in the areas where it fell just short in 2011.
“I really think there are two things that will make us better than last year,” said Craft, when contacted shortly after a tough Monday practice last week. “First is maturity. We appreciate being picked to finish high, but we don’t listen to the press or read the newspapers. We understand that all that is written or said are just people’s opinions.
“What’s important is how the team performs on the field. Briarwood always plays a tough schedule, and there are numerous teams that can beat us, if we don’t do our jobs.”
The well-spoken UAB football commitment said the other key is the Lions’ level of enthusiasm.
“We are much more pumped up this year,” Craft said. “The guys who aren’t in the game are really yelling and cheering for their teammates on the field. Our fans in the stands hear and feel it and feed off of it.
“Crowd and team enthusiasm has a big role in high school football.”
So does having a lot of talent on hand. Craft directs an offense that may be one of the best in metro Birmingham, regardless of classification. Running backs Sam Whittaker and Furuto are outstanding, and there are few better overall athletes in the area than Briarwood wide receiver Daniel Robert.
But Craft is smart enough to know that a strong offensive line is the key to any quarterback’s success – not to mention his good health.
“I call our big guys up front ‘my boys,’ ” said Craft, laughing. “With fellows like (guard) Nick Maxey and (tackle) Tim Crenshaw, we have as good an offensive front five as anybody. They take care of me, so I’m going to look out for them.”
Craft is a good offensive weapon in his own right. An equally adept passer and runner, he is perfectly tailored to run Yancey’s wide open schemes.
“When you have as many quality people in the skill positions as we do, it’s easy for a quarterback to take advantage of the situations,” said Craft. “If the opposing defense comes up to stop the run, we have receivers that can get open. If the defense respects the pass, we can ram the ball down their throats. That gives a quarterback a lot of opportunities.”
Throughout his athletic career, Craft has always made the most of his opportunities. A standout in baseball as well as football, Craft began playing quarterback in the sixth grade while growing up in Chelsea.
By the time he reached the ninth grade, Craft was such a prolific athlete that he was doing double duty for the Hornet football program.
“On Friday night, I was playing defensive back for the varsity,” Craft recalled. “Then on Monday night, I would play quarterback for the ninth grade team. I was pretty busy.”
Following his freshman year, Craft decided to transfer to Briarwood, which required that he sit out his sophomore year. But Craft stepped right into the quarterback picture at the beginning of his junior year and hasn’t looked back.
Briarwood followed its opening night win over Eagle’s Landing with an easy 39-14 rout of Region 4 rival Moody last Friday. Craft guided the Lions to 22 first-quarter points, setting the tone.
Briarwood’s victory was also a milestone: It marked Yancey’s 250th career win.
“We didn’t even know before the game that this would be Coach Yancey’s 250th win,” said Craft. “I’m so proud to be a part of it and the great tradition he has built at Briarwood.”
Craft and his teammates want to add one more layer to that tradition by giving their coach his first state championship since 2003.
“We want this (a championship) not only for ourselves, but for our coaches and fans,” he said. “The fact we came so close last year makes us want it all the more.”
Away from athletics, Craft is a fine student but said there are two classes he likes best.
“First, of course, there’s lunch,” he said, laughing. “But probably math is my favorite. It’s not like history or government, where there is always a dispute about the answer. In math, there is just one answer. I like that.”
Ben Craft may like lunch, but don’t expect his Lions to take many long lunch hours this fall. And when they add up the numbers, Briarwood could well be Class 5A champions again.