What a historic week we’ve enjoyed as high school football fans here in East Central Alabama! Three teams from Calhoun County are headed to the Super 7 in Class 3A, 4A and 6A. Close by, Central-Clay County will represent 5A and to our not-too-far north, Fyffe once again in 2A. With so many teams in the state championship games, it’s not too difficult to find teams for the POWER FIVE…but how do they rank in respect to “opportunity” to be a champion? Let’s take a look!
1 – PIEDMONT BULLDOGS
It would be incredibly easy for us to deliver this with a “we told you so” attitude when it comes to this team. Steve Smith is a gunslinger of a coach. He’s deadly, and never to be underestimated. Somewhat soft-spoken and his words come carefully crafted, but underneath all that poise is the heart of a lion and a will to win most don’t match. The biggest fear Piedmont fans should have is sooner rather than later, somebody with a checkbook big enough and a program nice enough is going to take notice of what this man has accomplished in his community and make the call. The facts are just staggering. Since 2009, the Bulldogs have played in the semi-final game seven times! They are making their fourth trip to the State Championship game in the past five seasons. They’re playing for their 4th Blue Map. Most Super 7 games wind up being rather anti-climatic. We think Piedmont’s matchup with Mobile Christian will be one of those games. We see the 3A title returning to Piedmont High School at about 2:30 PM on Thursday.
2 – OXFORD YELLOW JACKETS
Keith Etheredge rolls into Oxford as the Jackets' new head coach and puts his “happy-go-lucky” charm on the community and this football program. He handles the pressure that goes with the Oxford job like a glass of ice-cold cherry Kool-aid on a hot summer’s afternoon. He rallies the coaching staff around him, quick to hand out praise to all. He loves on the players and they buy-in. The man’s the perfect fit for what was before him, a not-so-perfect job. Yes, Etheredge inherited a cupboard full of talent, but others before him have had just as much. Joe Medley tapped him as “Easy E” in a recent Star article and the nickname fits him like Michael Jackson’s sequined white glove. Etheredge knows what the Super 7 is all about. He’s been there five times, winning four. The win over Pinson Valley actually surprised us. We were not sure they could beat them again, but they did. The Oxford football program and fan base have waited a long time to get where they will be on Friday night. Enjoy the moment, because with “Easy E” holding the keys to the car, this could be the first of many state championships for the Yellow Jackets.
3 – CENTRAL-CLAY COUNTY
Well, we’ll be darned if ol’ sly like a fox Danny Harn hasn’t snuckered them all again! The Volunteers have been quietly overlooked throughout most of the season. All the ASWA sportswriters snubbing them as the only defending state champion not to be ranked #1 in the preseason poll. Now, who’s laughing? Horn’s Volunteers return to Auburn for Thursday night’s 5A finale after a semi-final 27-0 shutdown of one of only two other teams to beat them this season, Mortimer-Jordan…and they did it on their field in front of their fans. Now it’s on to Auburn, where they’ll attempt to go back-to-back in 5A. The opposition is Pleasant Grove and by the numbers, they appear to be up to the task. The two teams mirror each other offensively and defensively. The Spartans are 13-1, with their only loss coming to Ramsey early in the regular season. They avenged that in the playoffs, winning 51-22 in the quarter-finals. Central has done the same, coming in at 12-2, they’ve avenged both their regular-season losses to Jasper (Round 1) and then Mortimer-Jordan (Semi-Finals). The AHSFHS computer has the Volunteers a +6 point favorite. The two teams have never met before. They’ve each played in one Super 7 championship game. Pleasant Grove lost to St Paul’s 35-13 back in 2004 and the Vols defeated Vigor last year in their thrilling 43-42 win. We’re not betting against Danny Horn!
4 – JACKSONVILLE GOLDEN EAGLES
This will be the Golden Eagles’ first trip to the state championship stage. That can be a little daunting all by itself. Throw in that their opponents will be the unbeaten and two-time defending 4A champs from UMS Wright Prep and the hill gets a little higher to climb. However, there’s something about this Jacksonville team that has just clicked in the last 5-6 weeks and they’re playing with confidence and purpose. We’re pretty sure the Tigers haven’t seen anything like Ron Wiggins. This guy is just in another time zone when he touches the football. It’s electric – you just wait for something special to happen, and #4 seldom disappoints. Obviously, the Tigers will try to shut him down. A coach we respect that has seen the Bulldogs in person says Jacksonville will not be able to run on the UMS defense. They'll have to throw it some to have success. The staggering stat to us is that UMS Wright has been to the Super 7 an amazing eight times, winning seven of them. They crushed Deshler 52-0 last year in Auburn. Their list of championship game victims reads like a who’s who of high school football in North Alabama. Their defense is “shut down”, only allowing 89 points all season…a 6.8 ppg average. In short, these boys don’t play. Jacksonville can’t let the moment get too big and they must go toe-to-toe physically to have a chance. Wiggins will have to break a couple. The computer likes the Golden Eagles at +6 because of their 42.1 ppg scoring average. The stats make it hard to pick Jacksonville outright in this one. A Golden Eagles win would be considered by most an upset. We wish them the best!
5 – OHATCHEE INDIANS
Our #5 team this week gives you a peek into what will be our FINAL FIVE next week as we rank all the teams from our area following the Super 7 games in Auburn. Obviously, to our surprise and disappointment, the Indians didn’t fulfill the pre-season hopes of a rematch with Fyffe at “The Creekbank” and a Tribe trip to Jordan-Hare. Still, it was another successful year with an unbeaten 9-0 regular season for the second year in a row, along with back-to-back 2A-Region 6 titles. Without a doubt, the injury to QB Eli Ennis affected the game plan against Collinsville in Round 2 and the Indians lost 21-14, ending their season at 10-1. No, they didn’t make as deep a playoff run as some other teams around here, but their dominance on the field during the regular season was crystal clear to anybody that watched them in person. Domonique Thomas is one of our area’s most gifted players and will certainly be in consideration for FNN’s “Player of the Year” nomination later this month. Word has it that with reclassification, Ohatchee could move back to 3A in 2020. While not likely as dominate as they were in 2A, Scott Martin’s Tribe will be a force once again next season.
FIRST TEAM OUT
WALTER WELLBORN PANTHERS
The Panthers enjoyed an exceptional regular season, going 9-1 and finishing tied for the 3A-Region 6 Championship with Piedmont and Randolph County. While they lost 41-7 in the 3A North semi-final to the Bulldogs, they will likely be able to walk around Calhoun County this spring and summer knowing they were the only team good enough to beat the eventual 3A state champions in 2019. That’s something they can build on for 2020. Coach Jeff Smith has plenty coming back for next season, including his son, Jett who has proved to be one of the area’s best players on both sides of the football. #9 is definitely on our list of players to consider as a nominee for FNN’s “2019 Player of the Year” award. The Panthers will likely remain in 3A with reclassification, so expect another tough schedule of region games next year. Coach Smith’s biggest concern might be the loss upfront on the offensive line with the loss of the Gilbert twins and Logan Grubb to graduation. However, all his skill players return so if they can plug in the gaps in the O Line, one of the state’s highest-scoring offenses should be back at it again for 2020, making Walter Wellborn a pre-season contender for a region title and deep postseason run.
Next week, we’ll have our FINAL FIVE for the 2019 season, where we’ll rank the teams based on their performance in Auburn. You already have #5 with Ohatchee and Walter Wellborn as our “First Team Out”.
Don’t forget to tune in on Saturday, December 14th at 7 PM when FNN will have our post-season show where we’ll reveal the four nominees for our 2019 Player of the Year Award and 2019 Coach of the Year Award. Fan voting on Facebook for both will begin immediately after the show concludes with voting set to end on Saturday, January 25th at 5 PM.
The 2nd Annual FNN Awards Night & Dinner is tentatively set to take place on Monday night, February 3rd at 7 PM, with both awards and other special recognitions being presented during the evening.
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