By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Sims Brown lingered on the field at Spartans Stadium Friday night after his No. 3 Mountain Brook team lost 24-18 to No. 1 Clay-Chalkville in the Class 6A semifinals of the Alabama High School Athletic Association football playoffs.
The wide receiver might have hung around after any game, but this one was different because it was his last one as a high school player.
“It’s pretty much all I’ve known for 18 years of my life. Well, half of it,” the senior said, choking up a bit. “I’m sorry. We put so much into it. We put so much into it. It’s tough but I think we left these younger guys with something they can learn from and hopefully they’ll get it next year.”
The Mountain Brook roster shows 27 12th-graders. That total pales when compared to the 46 seniors who were on the 2020 squad. That loss of veteran experience could have made the 2021 season a rebuilding campaign for coach Chris Yeager.
Instead, his Spartans finished the regular season ranked No. 3 by the Alabama Sports Writers Association and came within one win of earning a berth in the Super 7 this week at Birmingham’s Protective Stadium.
Yeager admits that he was pleasantly surprised by this year’s Spartans.
“These guys rallied. They led. They pulled this team together,” he said of the seniors on the squad. “They trended upward every week. They improved every single week. It’s a tribute to them that we’re even here.”
Four teams reached the Class 6A semifinals, the coach said, and Mountain Brook was one of those teams.
“We’re blessed to be playing and I’m thankful that we are,” he said. “I wish it had turned out differently. It’s difficult, it’s hard, but I’m thankful to be here. I’m proud of the way our guys played.”
The season was eight games old when Yeager truly grasped the notion that his team could possibly make a deep run in the playoffs. That game was a 49-14 win over Homewood.
“That was a week I saw us really trend upward,” he said. “We played a very clean football game. We started playing complementary football. The offense was complementing the defense. The defense was complementing the offense.”
And he couldn’t forget the kicking game.
“We were playing well in all three phases,” Yeager said. “That’s what you’ve got to do. I felt like that was the first week we played well in all three phases and we’ve been trending upward since then.
“We played clean football,” the coach said following the season-ending game. “Tonight, we didn’t play very clean football. You put the ball on the ground, you have penalties. You can’t do that in a championship game.”
Mountain Brook had moments against the No. 1 Cougars, like Jake Thompson’s TD pass to fellow senior George Cain on a fake field goal to give the home team an early 8-6 lead.
Or Jones Beavers jumping a route and making a diving interception to set the stage for John Colvin’s 16-yard touchdown toss to Brown. Or sophomore Cole Gamble’s 17-yard run during which he dragged would-be tacklers to set the Spartans up for Colvin’s 28-yard field goal that tied the contest at 18-18 with 1:48 to go in the fourth quarter.
A 60-yard pass play and a 16-yard TD run by Clay-Chalkville’s Ed Osley turned that tie into a Cougar lead the visitors would not relinquish.
“We made plays but we also made a lot of mistakes when we needed to make plays,” Brown said. “It’s just a tough one but we’re gonna have to bite the bullet on that one.”
The Spartans had a chance to distance themselves from the Cougars. When they were leading 15-12, a short Clay-Chalkville punt put the home team in business at the Cougar 32.
One play later, the Spartans fumbled and gave the ball back to Clay-Chalkville.
“That was the difference. I really believe that was the difference,” Yeager said. “That’s just sports. That’s just the way it goes. We’ll come back next year and work harder on ball security. That’s how you do it.”
The Clay-Chalkville offense had been spectacular this season, not scoring fewer than 40 points until they faced Mountain Brook. The Spartan defense was equally special, notching seven shutouts on the season.
“The defense played a heck of a game,” the coach said. “They played a great game. We left them out there too long. The team that wins the turnover ratio in a big game like this usually wins the game and they won the turnover ratio.
“We had an interception,” Yeager continued, “but we fumbled the ball. We put the ball on the ground. You have to execute better than we did in these games like this.”
The Spartan coach said his players “fought their guts out,” acknowledging that both teams played hard.
“It was an unbelievable high school football game,” Yeager said. “What a game! It was decided in the fourth quarter and we knew it would be decided in the fourth quarter. They’ve got a good program and we do too.”