As the winter sports season melted into spring, it was easy to believe Over the Mountain schools had already had their peak periods.
And to the untrained observer, why not? After all, Hoover won its second consecutive state Class 6A football championship, and Mountain Brook pulled a repeat as the king of Class 6A basketball. Additionally, area teams dominated cross country and indoor track.
But as impressive as that sounds, spring is traditionally when this area takes excellence to the next level.
Start with baseball. In the latest Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 6A poll, Hoover is ranked fourth and Spain Park is 10th. Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills are listed among other schools receiving votes.
In Class 5A, Homewood is ranked seventh and Briarwood is ninth. Even Class 1A reflects an area influence as Shades Mountain Christian also landed a top 10 spot.
Softball is a comparatively weak spot. While Hoover and Vestavia are traditional powers, only Spain Park cracks the Class 6A rankings in 2014. Coach C.J. Hawkins’ Lady Jaguars are rated fifth in the polls.
In the state track and field meet coming up in a few weeks, you can expect Over the Mountain teams in all classifications to come home with a boatload of blue trophies. And you can certainly expect local squads to dominate in golf and tennis as well.
But possibly there’s no brighter jewel in the Over the Mountain crown than soccer, where schools in the South Jefferson and North Shelby county areas dominate the way the New York Yankees dominated Major League Baseball in the 1940s and 1950s.
Vestavia boys’ soccer coach Rick Grammer was recently honored for his 600th career victory, and the Rebels are living up to that milestone with a No. 1 ranking in the latest Class 6A poll. Oak Mountain is right behind in second place, with Hoover and Mountain Brook listed fourth and fifth respectively.
In Class 5A boys’ soccer, John Carroll Catholic’s Cavaliers enjoy the top perch, with Homewood second and Briarwood coming in seventh. In small school classification Class 1A-4A, Indian Springs sits on top, with the Altamont School ranked sixth.
In Class 6A girls’ soccer, Oak Mountain has the No. 1 ranking, with Vestavia placing fifth and Mountain Brook coming in sixth. John Carroll leads in Class 5A, with rival Briarwood in second place and Homewood in sixth. In Class 1A-4A, the Altamont girls hold down the No. 8 spot.
For an overview, consider that in the state’s so-called soccer “super poll” of all classes for boys, seven Over the Mountain schools are ranked in the top 15, and seven local programs are among the top 15 in the girls’ version of the poll.
As impressive as all of this is, it also may be a little difficult to process. There are lots of reasons for this unprecedented success, including quality coaches, first class facilities and active administrative and parental involvement. All these ingredients are critical, but none of this would generate winning at this magnitude without quality athletes. So the question is–how do these athletes develop into top-quality varsity players?
The answer begins long before any of today’s players set foot on a high school campus. With the explosion in the growth of youth sports in this area and elsewhere, children often kick their first soccer ball or take a first swing at a baseball or softball before they begin kindergarten. While attrition due to early burnout is always a concern, many athletes today have been playing their chosen sports under the direction of good coaching for nearly a decade before graduating from middle school. So by the time they reach high school, many are already comparatively well-versed in the fundamentals of their game. That gives them a huge head start over athletes who–no matter how talented–don’t have the opportunity to play organized sports until they reach high school.
Another reason for the success in soccer is an increased emphasis on the game since it was officially sanctioned as a championship sport by the Alabama High School Athletic Association in 1991. For years, soccer was seen as the ideal entry-level sport for youngsters, largely because of relatively simple rules and little physical contact. In those days, kids would play soccer to hone hand-eye coordination and other skills before moving on to more traditional football or baseball. Now young soccer participants are more likely to stay with the sport until the end of their high school careers. Football at all levels will be king in Alabama–but soccer has earned its own niche of respect.
Another key for the overall success in spring and other sports comes from lessons that aren’t confined to an athletic field. By and large, Over the Mountain athletes come from an environment where they not only are expected to participate–they are expected to excel. The high expectation level carries from academics to outside activities. And that mindset carries over to athletics.
So as the spring sports season comes toward a conclusion, you might get worn out keeping up with how many local schools claim state championships. And remember that the road to the top didn’t start in high school.
Does the city of Mountain Brook love its basketball Spartans? No doubt about it, particularly after the boys’ team claimed its second consecutive state 6A title in February.
That love manifested itself last week when Mountain Brook Mayor Terry Oden declared April 11 Bucky McMillan Day in honor of the Spartans’ head coach.
McMillan was a standout at Mountain Brook before playing college basketball at Birmingham-Southern College. He took the reins of the Mountain Brook basketball program six seasons ago.
McMillan was typically humble about the honor, eager as always to toss the credit in other directions. But McMillan introduced the blue collar, team-first concept to Spartan basketball that brought it to the level of an elite program.
To Mountain Brook fans, that might be worth even more than a special day.