X’s and O’s for New Season
As high school football kicks off, which teams will have the depth to pull off the wins and which ones will win our hearts? Loyal football fans in the Two Eighty area love this time of year!
Spain Park High School Jaguars
It’s a bit of a wildcard year for Hoover’s Spain Park High School Jaguar varsity football team, coming off of not having a football field on which to practice during the summer and graduating a significant number of seniors last school year.
Jaguar Stadium was closed for months to install new field turf and track surfaces.
“You don’t appreciate turf until you don’t have it,” Spain Park Head Football Coach Shawn Raney, says. “We’ve been rolling around in the mud this summer, with as wet as it was on our grass fields. But we’ve got a good group, and we’re focusing on consistency.”
Thinking about the recent 8-3 season, Shawn says this likely will be a building year, but the goal is always to do better and win at least one more game than last season.
“We have three returning starters on offense and three on defense,” he says. “I’m especially proud of this senior class because they may not have gotten to play as much as they wanted to in past seasons, but they stuck with it. This should be their year!”
Spain Park has 26 seniors on this year’s varsity football; 32 seniors graduated last year. Many of last season’s seniors began as starters when they were sophomores.
“So, they basically had three years of football built around them,” Shawn, the Jaguars coach of the past five years, says.
Five of those former seniors signed to play football in college: Douglas Henze at Harvard, Damon Wright at Mississippi College, Will Mullins at Gardner-Webb, Hunter Howell at Samford University and Thomas Jordan at Centre College.
Shawn says he and the other 10 football coaches have spent the summer studying tactics at colleges in Arkansas and Georgia, as well as attending coaching clinics and hosting student camps.
“Spain Park is outstanding, and our students are well-rounded, as athletes, academically and socially,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun to coach here, and their parents step up and support us throughout the year.”
Oak Mountain High School Eagles
Cris Bell enters his sixth season as the head coach at Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham. He’s always said he likes challenges and last football season presented several. In 2016, the Eagles varsity team started with three straight losses before winning three of four in the middle of the season and closing with three other losses. This year’s schedule will be tough again for the mix of senior and younger players, as they square off against the same teams, but will switch home and away games.
Cris admits it’s such a strong football region, there is little margin for errors. However, this head coach is feeling optimistic about this year’s potential.
“In the off-season, we evaluated what we were doing,” Cris, who took responsibility for not maintaining as much overall confidence as was possible for players throughout last year, says. “But we’ve got guys who want to be there on the field, and this season, they have a renewed sense of purpose about them.”
Cris and his nine assistant varsity football coaches believe this season’s football players are taking ownership of the program, and buying into ambitious objectives.
“We made tangible decisions and moves regarding the way we’re doing things, and we’re being more intentional about leadership,” he says.
On paper, he says they have skilled players at playmaker and offensive line spots, with a new replacement quarterback.
“We struggled defensively last season, but if we can catch a couple of breaks, I think we’ll do well,” Cris says.
He says it was time for the football program to grow and develop, so that’s what they did.
“We’re all feeling like we have something to prove.”
Hoover High School Buccaneers
Varsity head football coach Josh Niblett and his 10 assistant varsity coaches will be defending a 7-0 conference record—and they expect success. The Buccaneers again will compete against regional teams throughout the Birmingham metro area; nonregion games are comprised of schools outside of Alabama. Last year’s overall record was 8-2-0.
Hoover’s players are eager to play on their brand-new turf after the stadium was closed this summer for renovation.
The Bucs’ “dynasty” comes from winning five state titles in nine seasons. No doubt, the school community takes football seriously, evidenced by when in 2015, Josh became the highest-paid high school football coach in Alabama, earning $125,000 per year. He also provides weight training at the school, into which he’s injected new mental and safety features he believes are being carried into how the players perform. This fall will be his 21st season as a head football coach in Alabama.
“We have high expectations of ourselves, year in and year out with the goal of getting better by 1 percent every day,” he says.
He says the team is coming off of a great summer of accelerated learning, and that this team has good chemistry. He’s looking for those players who will be “difference makers” as they face one of the toughest schedules in the country.
“Our goal is to make changes to ensure the right people are in the right spots, and that we have the best 11 guys out on the field at all times,” he says.
Josh says momentum will be key, and that their goal is to dictate each game.
“We’re a little young on the back end, but if we control the box and come out strong and early on defense, we can build on our strengths,” he says. “We’ve got the skill, speed and flexibility.”
He says there’s a bit of competition among quarterbacks this season. “But they’re pushing each other up, and we’ll try to get the ball into the hands of all of our receivers.”
“Football is always changing, and we’re focused on building great athletes who have the tools to explode at the right times,” Josh says. We like the dynamics for this season.”
Briarwood Christian High School Lions
These Birmingham Lions like to roar. Briarwood Christian High School’s varsity football teams have won multiple state titles. They currently are coached by Fred Yancey, who is second on the list of all-time winningest Alabama high school head coaches. One of the key elements to success for the football teams at this school appears to be quality athletes with great hearts and attitudes.
“To have a successful season, several things have to fall into place: You have to have talented athletes who like to play football, along with terrific coaches,” says Fred, who last year led the Lions to an overall 12-2 record and regional 7-0 count. The team celebrated a 12-game winning streak, losing only the opening and last games.
Fred says he’s been blessed with outstanding assistant coaches over his entire career.
“I lean heavily on our coaches to work together to be as good as we can be,” he says.
Indeed, Briarwood’s coaches include previous Super Bowl NFL competitors, prior Briarwood players, as well as former players from the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Southern Methodist University and the University of South Alabama.
Strengths for this team’s upcoming season, as assessed by Fred, are the core linebackers and veteran secondary defensive backs.
“This season, we have a new quarterback,” he says. “His capacity is unproven because he hasn’t gotten a lot of play time in the past. But he’s a real competitor as one of our top baseball and basketball athletes, and we like his potential.”
The coach says he believes the Lions will be strong this season, but he also thinks all of the teams in the region will be much stronger this year, “from top to bottom.” He says there were several young teams in the mix last season, so they now could make a big jump.
This victorious coach pays attention to detail and discipline.
“BCS coaches and athletes strive to practice diligently, compete hard and show great sportsmanship in victory and defeat,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s my feeling that the Lord is ‘growing up’ the next generation of leaders, for Christ’s sake, in Birmingham and the world, on the fields and courts of high school competition. Our athletes are hard to beat.”
Chelsea High School Hornets
Chris Elmore enters his fifth season as head coach of the Hornets varsity football team in Chelsea. Rolling off an 8-3 overall record, he says this year’s team of patient, former juniors will be looking to push extra hard to show what they can do, now that it’s their time to shine as seniors.
“With 24 seniors graduating last school year, it’s almost like starting with a new team,” says Chris, who quickly adds that he’s got confidence in them and is eager to see how they respond to the opportunities.
“Most of this year’s 27 seniors just haven’t been put in the fire yet. Their potential is unknown because they’ve haven’t yet had the playing time on the field, but they’ve put in the work for the past couple of years,” says the coach who’s been watching them develop since eighth grade.
Chris says this football team is one of the smartest, most humble set of students they’ve had, and that they coped with “the wait” really well. He says he’s eager for them to get their chance.
Chris and his assistant coaches handled football camp a little differently this summer by incorporating SafeFootball instructors and techniques from the program developed by retired NFL players. The goal is to teach players how to “take the head out of the game,” thus minimizing the risk of concussions. He also explains the emphasis has been on being more physically balanced, coming to center balance during plays and using the most powerful muscles: hips, butts and legs.
Going into this season, he expects the Hornets’ defense to be a strong attribute.
“We won’t be relying so much on upper body strength because it’s more about how good you are with your techniques, not how strong you are,” he says.