This is an opinion piece.
Some initial thoughts as we close the door on the 2022 Super 7 at Auburn and look forward to this week’s Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game in Mobile.
Saraland coach Jeff Kelly clearly was tired of finishing second.
Prior to Friday’s Class 6A championship game against Mountain Brook, he had led three teams to within one win of the title and each came up just short.
In 2009, his Jackson team lost 31-27 to Cherokee County in the Class 4A championship.
In 2014, his Spartans dropped a 36-31 shootout to Ty Pigrome and Clay-Chalkville in Class 6A. And, in 2018, they lost 26-17 to eventual Mr. Football Bo Nix and Pinson Valley.
He was determined 2022 would be different. Immediately after his team defeated Region 1 rival Theodore in the semifinals, he preached to his team that the job wasn’t done and they weren’t coming to Auburn just to be there.
On Friday, he was aggressive from start to finish.
The Spartans went for it on four fourth downs and converted each one, including two Ryan Williams’ touchdown runs. The second of those TDs came as time expired in the first half when Kelly passed up a field goal that would have given the Spartans a 24-10 lead to go for the TD.
“Heck, we’ve got two red maps at the house,” he said about his thought process after the game. “If it didn’t work out for us, we would take another one. But I just thought, ‘Let’s try to get a blue map.’”
Saraland won 38-17, claiming the school’s first football title in 13 years of competition.
A memorable night for Yeager
If anyone thought Mountain Brook coach Chris Yeager would be down after his team’s loss to Saraland, they would be wrong.
Yeager relished his team’s journey to Auburn and realized how special it had been not just in 2022 but over his long coaching career there.
“I’ve been at Mountain Brook for 24 years,” he said. “For the first time, I’m coaching children of players I coached when I first got to Mountain Brook. It’s so fun.”
He then told a story about one of his players, senior wide receiver Rob Gillespie, that in my mind epitomizes what high school athletics is all about. Gillespie came to Yeager’s youth football camp when he was in third grade.
“The very last day he wants to get a picture made with me and we take a picture together, and he said, ‘Coach, one day we are going to get a picture together in the state championship,’” Yeager said. “About 10 minutes ago – that thing has been on the burner for 8 or 9 years – and so the last thing I did before we walked off the field was Rob came and found me and it was like we just surged back in time.
“It was such a special thing of, ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to get to go back to Mountain Brook. I’m going to be a Mountain Brook Spartan tomorrow.’ That’s pretty darn special, and I’ll have a bunch of guys waiting in line like Rob Gillespie who want to become Spartans.”
More from Chris Yeager
Yeager also described what he believes it means to be a champion.
“Before you are a champion in your arena, you are a champion in your heart,” he said. “Nobody makes you a champion because they put a ring on your finger or a trophy on your shelf. A champion is something that occurs during the journey and something that occurs for the rest of your life.
“It’s trying to become a craftsman at whatever you do as a person, your character, everything. That is where our focus came from. It wasn’t trying to win where someone on the outside said, ‘You guys are champions.’ It was, ‘What is our purpose, and can we become that?’ That was our journey.”
What a run it’s been for Andalusia coach Trent Taylor and Fyffe coach Paul Benefield this fall.
Taylor led his alma mater to its first state title in 45 years on Friday as the Bulldogs knocked off Cherokee County 28-7 for the Class 4A crown.
Benefield led his Red Devils to their sixth state title since 2014 with a 40-28 victory over B.B. Comer in 2A.
Earlier this fall, both also were voted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of fame. Benefield, Taylor and 11 others will be officially inducted in March in Montgomery.
“The good Lord has been really good to me, and I’m blessed,” Benefield said. “I give God all the glory for anything that has ever happened good to me.”
The “Big Ugly”
Paul Benefield calls Fyffe’s unique offense “The Big Ugly.”
What is it exactly?
“It’s toe-to-toe tight ends, and it’s smashmouth,” he said following his team’s latest state title win on Friday. “It’s hard to explain, but it will break you.”
Fyffe’s offense is the anti-spread.
The Red Devils form a tight formation, run the ball right at you over and over and over again and, by midway through the third quarter – if not before, opposing teams have usually had enough.
That is what it looked like on Friday against a good B.B. Comer team. The Red Devils ran the ball 61 times – 61! – for 277 yards. The main weapon was Brodie Hicks, who toted it 45 times for 235 yards and 5 TDs. They threw the ball just five times, and that is more than in most games.
Even more impressive was the fact that Benefield’s team played without 1,800-yard rusher Logan Anderson, who tore his ACL and MCL in his team’s semifinal victory. Anderson is Fyffe’s outside running threat. With him out, it was almost all between the tackles running on Friday.
Since 2014 – the early stages of the “Big Ugly” – Fyffe is 125-5 with six state titles and six unbeaten seasons. How does Benefield get his players to buy in to that type of attack in a world where everyone wants the football?
“They don’t get any choice,” he joked. “They can either do it or go to the gym. If you are not going to be dedicated and put something into it for the team, then I want you somewhere else. This is the kind of ending you get because of that dedication. It doesn’t end this way every year, but we are getting pretty good at it.”
Five different players accounted for 5 touchdowns in their team’s wins this week.
They were Thompson quarterback Trent Seaborn (an eighth-grader), Leroy quarterback Brayden Huebner, Fyffe running back Brodie Hicks, St. James quarterback KJ Jackson and Ramsay running back Ashton Ashford.
Saraland sophomore and Alabama commit Ryan Williams scored 4 touchdowns – all in the first half – for the Spartans against Mountain Brook on Friday night.
More than 61,000 fans witnessed the Super 7 this year at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
According to numbers released by the AHSAA on Friday night, a total of 61,519 attended the three-day event.
“We can’t thank the cities of Auburn and Opelika and Auburn University enough for what they do to make the Super 7 experience so special for our schools and our communities,” AHSAA Executive Director Alvin Briggs said. “The Super 7 has become such an important event in the lives of our student-athletes thanks to our opportunity to play in such special venues like Auburn, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham. This year was very special and lifetime memory for our student-athletes, coaches, schools, and communities.”
Here is the day-by-day breakdown:
Wednesday (girls flag football, 7A) –23,464.
Thursday (1A, 3A, 5A) – 14,218.
Friday (2A, 4A, 6A) – 23,837.
Ben Thomas is the high school sportswriter at AL.com. He has been named one of the 50 legends of the Alabama Sports Writers Association. Follow him on twitter at @BenThomasPreps or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His weekly column is posted each Wednesday and Friday on AL.com. He can be heard weekly on “Inside High School Sports” on SportsTalk 99.5 FM in Mobile or on the free IHeart Radio App at 2 p.m. Wednesdays.