By Bill Lumpkin III
The prodigal son returned home Thursday night, showcasing a NASCAR-fast offense and promising to return the Vestavia Hills football program to the success of its prestigious past.
The initial game drew mixed reviews in a tough 24-14 loss to Class 6A, No. 2 Mountain Brook, but new coach Robert Evans has the Rebels faithful hoping for a quick turnaround after two straight losing seasons and one playoff berth in the past six years.
“With him here, it’s like this is his place,” said Vestavia Hills quarterback John Paul Head, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 119 yards on 17 carries with a 44-yard touchdown. “This is home. There’s just a different feeling around here.”
Evans won a state championship with the Rebels in 1998 as the Class 6A finals MVP and won four state titles as a linebacker coach/defensive coordinator at Hoover. He spent the past four years as the defensive coordinator at Mountain Brook.
“There were no nerves at all,” Evans said after the game. “It was a football game and that’s just a natural element for me. I love being at a football game and all the peripheral stuff has no meaning really. I’m disappointed in the way we played because that ultimately falls on the head coach and that starts with me.
“I guess there’s a little more pressure, but that’s what we want to have. Obviously, I know a lot of people here and you want to honor those people that have come before us. You know we didn’t play the way we’re going to play in three or four years, but yeah, I’m proud to be here and from here.”
Evans, who played for the legendary Buddy Anderson at Vestavia Hills, replaced Scott Calhoun, who resigned after one season to go back to Georgia. The Rebels were 4-6 in Calhoun’s only season.
“There’s just a different vibe this year,” Head said. “Like last year, nothing against Coach Calhoun because I love him and he was a great guy, but I think he turned us kind of soft. Coach has us back to work and I like that.”
The Rebels are hungry for a winner after going a combined 63-47 the past 10 years, including only three winning seasons in the past eight years.
“I just didn’t think we coached well enough in the second half and that starts with me,” Evans said. “I’m disappointed in the result because our community is awesome and our fans are awesome. We have another opportunity next week and we’ll look forward to getting on the board, I’m proud of our guys and excited for the future of our program.”
“I think you can see that in a year’s time, we’re going to be a different program.”
Fourth Quarter Energy
Mountain Brook, which now has won six straight over the Rebels, won 33-3 a year ago, but it led only 17-14 in the fourth quarter, and Vestavia Hills had the ball with a first down at its own 15 with a chance to take the lead.
“This is what high school football is all about,” Evans said. “It’s 17-14 in the fourth quarter in a packed stadium. You can’t ask for more than that.
“I was thinking we had to get to 30 points to win and I thought we could. Obviously, they had some big fourth down stops. I thought we had some bad calls on both sides and that starts with me. That’s a good football team and they’ve done it year after year so there’s no shame in losing to them. We just have to be better.”
The Rebels caught the Spartans off guard several times with their no-huddle, NASCAR-fast offense. Offensive coordinator Josh Donaldson came over from Hueytown, where the Class 6A Golden Gophers lost in the 2021 state championship game after averaging more than 50 points a game.
“Coach (Josh) Franklin (offensive coordinator) does a great job,” Evans said. “He does a great job with our offense and that’s the way we’re going to play moving forward. We just have to be a lot better in situational football and we weren’t this time.
“But you have to give the other side credit, too. When you don’t play well, the other side has a lot to do with that. It’s a learning curve. Still, I was proud of the guys, and I think we’ll be a tough out in the future.”
Head threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Keown Richardson to close Mountain Brook’s lead to 10-6 at the half and ran for a 44-yard touchdown to close the gap to 17-14 with 5:26 left in the third quarter. Richardson finished with eight catches for 61 yards.
“We’ve had to learn two different offenses these past two years and that’s tough,” Head said. “I thought we played well tonight and played really hard. We needed to make a play here or there and it could have been different. I think we’ve got a chance to turn this around and be awesome. We just have to go back to work tomorrow.
“I know we’ll have a bad taste in our mouth after this one.”
Head made two crucial mistakes in the fourth quarter as Mountain Brook’s Tucker Crawford intercepted him twice in the final six minutes, including one in the end zone with 2:03 remaining.
The Rebels rolled the dice twice early in the game, failing on fourth-and-three from the Mountain Brook 28 on their opening possession in a scoreless game and on fourth-and-three from the Spartans’ 22 midway through the second quarter down 3-0.
“We lost to a good football team,” Evans said. “I was on the other side last year and it was like 30-0 at halftime (actually 27-0) and this year it was three points going into the fourth quarter. Plus, I think they are a better version of a football team than last year.
“I know we’re better. Maybe the results didn’t show it tonight. We have to get significantly better and it starts with the head coach, putting our guys in the right positions, especially in critical situations. I really thought third downs were the difference tonight.”
Mountain Brook quarterback John Colvin completed 12 of 18 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns, connecting with Clark Sanderson from 17 yards out for a 10-0 lead in the second quarter and a 5-yard toss to Rob Gillespie for the game-clincher. Sanderson finished with five catches for 98 yards.
Cole Gamble led the Spartans on the ground with 71 yards on 15 carries, including a three-yard touchdown for a 17-6 lead in the third quarter. Jack King chipped in 60 yards on 16 carries and Will Waldrop 45 yards on nine carries.
Mountain Brook will return home to host James Clemens this week, and if it all goes as planned, the Spartans can clinch the 400th win in school history Sept.15 at Jackson-Olin.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Rebels with a home game this week against Homewood, then back-to-back Class 7A, Region 3 contests against No. 1 Thompson and No. 5 Hoover.
“We’re making progress as a program,” Evans said. “But there are no moral victories here.”