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Many people love November because they see it as the start of the Christmas season. (Whether that’s actually true is up for debate. I’ll just say that your Christmas season can start whenever you believe it does. The real one starts the day after thanksgiving.)
What’s not up for debate is what the month of November also brings with it every year – high school football playoffs. Wadley, RCHS, Handley and Clay Central are all gearing up for postseason games, and they – like almost every other playoff team in the state right now – will look at themselves in the figurative mirror before they take the field and ask some form of this question: “Why not us?”
You have to win five playoff games to win a state title. You have to win four to make it to Bryant-Denny to play in this year’s Super 7. And as the first round approaches, every team in the field in every classification is preparing to show on the field why they will be the ones to reach those lofty heights.
For those four local teams now is the time to answer that question: Why not them? Is there a realistic opportunity for a state championship? What is the biggest obstacle to that goal?
We’ll look at each team, and try to answer some of those questions as you get ready to put up your Christmas tree (or not) and watch the high school football playoffs.
Wadley – Class 1A
Record: 9-1, Region 6 champions
First-round opponent: Cedar Bluff, 5-5, No. 4 seed from Region 7
(For the full 1A bracket click here)
Wadley and Cedar Bluff have meet twice before, both in the playoffs and both in the third round. The last time they played, in 2015, Cedar Bluff scored a go-ahead touchdown with four seconds left to stun Wadley into a 34-27 loss.
There are some similarities between that 2015 Wadley team and this year’s team. That was a breakout year for a sophomore-heavy squad. It began a string of three straight region championships and three straight 10-win seasons for the Bulldogs under former coach Ken Fordham.
This year’s team is built around a sophomore core as well, with Jaquez Wilkes, Cortavion Lynch, Frisco Robertson, Jabari Burns and Dekevion Staples as key contributors on both sides of the ball. They too, won their first region championship as a starting group and believe it could be the start of another big run.
Wadley and Cedar Bluff have two common opponents – Winterboro and Spring Garden. Wadley defeated both of those teams with relative ease (41-7 over Spring Garden, 42-8 over Winterboro). Cedar Bluff lost to Winterboro 33-7 and beat Spring Garden 7-6.
The general consensus is that outside of Coosa Christian, region 7 was not a strong region this year. There’s every reason to believe that Wadley should take care of business Thursday and move on.
But how far can they go?
The 1A North is one of the more unpredictable brackets out there just because there is not what anyone would consider a dominant team. The usual suspects of teams like Pickens County and South Lamar and Spring Garden just aren’t as strong as they have been in years past. For example, Pickens County, which knocked Wadley out of the playoffs last year, is a three-seed out of Region 5.
For me, the teams to watch are Wadley, Lynn and Coosa Christian. And the way the bracket sets up Wadley will only have to play one of those teams, and that would be in the state semifinals.
The thing that gives me pause about this Wadley team is the fact that they just don’t have a lot of seniors. That tends to show up in the later rounds of the playoffs when more experienced teams can take advantage of younger squads. But talent-wise Wadley has the roster to make a deep run and is one of the small number of teams that can realistically say it has a chance to win it all in 1A.
RCHS – Class 3A
Record: 9-1, No. 2 seed out of Region 4
First-round opponent: W.S. Neal, 7-3, No. 3 seed from Region 1
(For the full 3A bracket click here)
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools, playoffs or otherwise. They don’t have any common opponents either so there isn’t a reliable frame of reference as to how these two teams will match up with one another.
When that happens I like to go off of what I know about the hometown team. RCHS has shown that it can score in so many different ways. Mo Winston personifies that as much as anyone on the team. The sophomore running back has emerged as a touchdown waiting to happen, no matter where he is on the field and no matter the circumstances. He has scored 22 times on the ground, four through the air, twice on interception returns, twice on punt returns and once on a kickoff return.
If for some reason Winston can’t get it going Friday, the Tigers have four-year starter Avion Willis at quarterback. Willis has not been called on to do much this season due to the dominance of the Tigers’ running attack, but when he has been called on he has delivered.
And for everything that Willis has accomplished in his career he and his fellow seniors are still looking for that first playoff win as starters. RCHS’s last playoff victory came in the second round in 2019, when this year’s seniors were in the eighth grade.
So how far can they go?
Of all the first-round games locally, this one makes me the most nervous. But I think RCHS will come away victorious. After that things get real in a hurry for the Tigers. A win this week almost certainly puts them on the road in round two against defending state champion St. James and four-star quarterback K.J. Jackson, who is committed to Arkansas. That would be an us-against-the-world type of game that few would expect RCHS to win, so mapping things out beyond that seems presumptuous. Let’s watch the Tigers take care of business this week, and then we can talk about them shocking the world next week.
Handley – Class 4A
Record: 9-1, Region 4 champions
First-round opponent: St. Michael, 6-4, No. 4 seed from Region 1
(For the full 4A bracket click here)
St. Michael is one of the newest football programs in the state as they are in just their sixth year of varsity competition. This is the first time the football team has reached the postseason. Their head coach is former San Diego Chargers star quarterback Philip Rivers, and Rivers’s son Gunner is the freshman starting quarterback.
The younger Rivers has completed over 60 percent of his passes for 2,561 yards and 26 touchdowns, with sophomore receiver Brody Jones (62 catches, 1,051 yards, 10 Tds) his favorite target.
Handley counters with a line-of-scrimmage based game in which the Tigers will look to overwhelm opponents up front on both sides of the ball with T’Marion Phillips and Ladarious Johnson.
I get the feeling Handley’s physicality will be the determining factor in this game and will outweigh (literally and figuratively) the young skill of the Cardinals. Handley may be susceptible to some big pass plays on the back end, but if Rivers doesn’t have time to throw those opportunities will be severely limited. In the end Handley should wear them down and come away with a fairly easy victory.
So how far can they go?
Boy oh boy, the 4A South is a minefield. But Handley may be one of the best positioned teams in the bracket to make a long run. Handley will play the winner between American Christian and Booker T. Washington in round two. But elsewhere in the bracket there could be second round games that pit No. 3 Jackson against defending state champion Andalusia. On the other side, T.R. Miller and No. 1 Montgomery Catholic will square off. In round two. I guarantee you all four of those teams think they can win a state championship, and two of them will be sitting at home after the second round.
If Handley survives that’s the gauntlet they will enter into in round three. It’s a tough road, but Handley is battle tested (both this season and in playoffs past), experienced, and they have a coach who knows a thing or two about winning in the playoffs. The Tigers might need a couple of breaks along the way, but a trip to Tuscaloosa is not out of the question for this Handley team.
Clay Central – 5A
Record: 10-0, Region 4 champions
First-round opponent: UMS-Wright, 6-4, No. 4 seed out of Region 1
(For the full 5A bracket click here)
Well, here we go. I’ve had this potential matchup on my radar for close to a month now and lo and behold it has arrived. But here’s the thing. For all the excitement about Danny Horn and Terry Curtis going head to head as the all-time winningest coaches in Alabama high school football history, this may not be that great of a game.
I say that knowing that Central will be without starting running back LaDamion Boyd, who suffered a fractured leg bone in the Volunteers’ regular season finale and will miss the rest of the season.
I say it also knowing that no team has scored more than two touchdowns on the Volunteers’ defense in a game this year, and it’s a defense for which LaDamion Boyd has made exactly one tackle.
It’s no trivial matter to replace someone who is averaging almost 11 yards per carry as Boyd did, but if any team is suited to do so it’s Central. Their offensive line play has been elite, so while replacing Boyd creates some logistical issues for Horn, the notion that his absence will bring the Vols’ running game to a halt is absurd.
So how far can they go?
Even without Boyd, Central is on a path to 15-0 and a state title. That doesn’t mean they WILL win it all. It just means that they have the type of team that wins games in November and they obviously have a coach that understands success at this time of the season as well as anyone who has ever done it.
If nothing else Central appears to be on a collision course for a round-three date with Gulf Shores. And while teams in the North like Ramsay and Pleasant Grove may have something to say about it, the winner of that potential matchup between Central and Gulf Shores could very well go on to win it all.