By Lee Davis
Mountain Brook coach Chris Yeager would be the first to say that the past two seasons have not been vintage times for his football program.
The Spartans ended 2015 with their second consecutive 3-7 record, one of the few times in recent decades that Mountain Brook has posted back-to-back losing marks. Despite the disappointments, optimism on Bethune Drive abounds as the new year approaches.
“We had one of the best off-season programs since I’ve been here,” Yeager said. “We’ve got a lot of guys here who are determined to get Mountain Brook back to where it is supposed to be.”
Yeager’s words reflect far more than wishful thinking. The Spartans appear more talented and deeper than in recent seasons, and they could have a decent shot at returning to their accustomed spot in the post-season playoffs.
“We’ve got 40 seniors, which is one of the biggest senior classes we’ve had in my 18 years at Mountain Brook,” Yeager said. “Experience always matters, and we’re getting good leadership from this group.”
Pulling the trigger at quarterback will be junior Hamp Sisson, capable as a runner and passer. Behind Sisson will be a trio of outstanding runners, including seniors Sam Everette and McKee Brown and junior Harold Joiner. Everette is the team’s leading returning rusher from 2015 and Brown – at 5-4, 150 pounds – is quick and elusive.
The Spartans’ offensive line is talented and deep and has better size than in recent years. The leader may be senior Price Delk, but he’ll have plenty of quality players around him. Other candidates for extensive playing time are Johnny Leara, Will Carothers, John Pelham, Zac Morris, Sean Doud and Christian Johnston.
Sisson will have no shortage of fine passing targets. Clay Stearns and Wilson Golden are both capable tight ends. The wide receiver corps is made up of Sims Herron, Wilson Higgins, J.P. Darnall and Hamp Greene. Greene’s father was a place kicker at the University of Alabama in the 1990s.
Speaking of kicking, when Mountain Brook needs a field goal, Mason Dillard may be one of the best kickers in the region. Alex Pankey will also be a factor.
The Spartans gave up more than 23 points a game last season, and Yeager knows that the defense must improve if his team is to make a comeback. Two standouts will be senior middle linebacker Will Wetzler, a three-year starter, and senior free safety Zach Carroll, a two-year starter.
Tackles Joe Bird and Butler Wilbanks and end Sam Colvin will be strong on the defensive front. Joining Wetzler in the linebacker corps are Tanner Dean, Mabry Crane, Henry Barze, Conner Bussman and Jack Grant.
“The key will be if we can come together as a team,” Yeager said. “Our guys are a close knit group and are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. If we keep working hard, we’ll be fine.”
Yeager developed unity in the off-season by putting together a mentoring program matching up this year’s seniors with former Spartan players, including ex-University of Alabama star Major Ogilvie.
If the good news is that Mountain Brook is improved, the bad news is that the Spartans’ schedule is as rugged as ever. The Spartans reside in Class 7A’s Region Three, along with perennial superpowers Hoover, Spain Park and Vestavia Hills and up-and-comers Thompson and Oak Mountain. Mountain Brook must meet the Buccaneers, Warriors and Jaguars before its open date on Sept. 23, so both units will have to develop quickly if the Spartans are to be competitive. Making the schedule even more difficult is that Mountain Brook is facing Hoover, Spain Park and Vestavia on the road.
“It’s tough but that’s nothing new,” Yeager said. “Our region is the Southeastern Conference of high school football. But I think our players know what it takes to be successful at this level. There’s no such thing as an easy game or an easy play.”
Nothing will come easy for Mountain Brook in 2016, but there are legitimate reasons for excitement among the Spartan fan base. If the injury bug stays away, there’s every reason to believe Yeager’s men will be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
With a little luck, Mountain Brook’s streak of losing seasons will stop at two.