This is an opinion piece
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
AUBURN — After winning its first football state championship with only four senior starters, Saraland’s immediate prospects for adding more Blue Maps will depend more on how it reacts than what the Spartans’ opponents will do.
After securing the trophy every team wants — it was fitting for star wide receiver Ryan Williams to carry it off the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium after a 38-17 win over Mountain Brook Friday night — the question is if Saraland will relinquish it anytime soon.
With the pre-eminent talent, returning experience and coaching expertise the Spartans possess, they’ll be favored to repeat as the Class 6A champions next year.
“This was an amazing season,” Saraland coach Jeff Kelly wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday. “It is not the end. The best is yet to come! Bring on 2023.”
While there is rejoicing in The Land, other coaches are already uneasy about a future with Williams and the rest of this prodigious team snarling and standing astride the path to the Super 7, perhaps still reaching for their magnum opus.
“It’s not a good feeling when they’re in the same class and we may see them twice more,” said Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa coach Jamie Mitchell, whose Patriots were beaten by Saraland 56-31 in the second round this year.
After 18 years of coaching and tens of thousands of yards of toil, Kelly made the best 10-yard walk in the sport Friday night to accept his first Blue Map from UMS-Wright legend Terry Curtis, the man who has more victories than any other high school coach in state history and so many Blue Maps of his own he could be the prime minister of his own government.
But when Kelly finally grasped it, he almost lost it.
Kelly was so overcome with joy he jutted the Map toward the cheering throng of Saraland fans and it began to wobble and went airborne as he ran toward his players, who helped their coach retrieve it for maybe the finest catch of the night. Kelly didn’t give the fans a graceful tour jeté but the trophy was safe.
“I got carried away,” Kelly said. “I was trying to play it up to the crowd. It’s a good thing I caught it before it hit the ground. I probably wouldn’t have ever lived that down.”
But as was the case in this 14-1 season, everything turned out right for the Spartans and it might be the last time the Blue Map has any chance of teetering out of their clench for a while.
Kelly could laugh about fumbling the Map at his moment of ultimate triumph but he set about the task of getting Saraland’s hands on the iconic symbol of a state championship with indefatigable tenacity and, of course, superior coaching.
After three close losses in the Super 7, two with the Spartans, Kelly made it clear to his players for almost a year he was not going to be satisfied with anything less than a state championship and let it be known they better feel the same way.
That feeling is not likely to change going forward, so there is an expectation Saraland is in the business of winning Blue Maps, especially since the team which just won one is laden with 25 juniors and 31 sophomores, including the flamboyant trio of Williams, quarterback K.J. Lacey and running back Santae McWilliams — one of the most talented collections of 10th-graders on one team in state history.
The Spartans were good enough to break the North bracket’s playoff dominance which had claimed six straight Blue Maps and nine of the last 10.
There is certainly a precedent for staying on the pinnacle of the sport in what is now Class 6A. Blount had a three-peat in 1996-97-98 and Spanish Fort (2012-13), Pinson Valley (2017-18) and Oxford (1988-89) have repeated as champions.
So why not Saraland?
Some of the players spoke of doing the same thing after leaving no doubt of their supremacy in Class 6A with the decisive victory over Mountain Brook.
With continued pushing from players such as Williams and linebacker Jamison Curtis, the team’s leading tackler, it’s more than just possible.
“I was telling the players this was going to be a business trip up here and to not go and make bad choices and I heard Jamison tell one of our assistants, ‘Coach, you ain’t got to worry about nothing because we want to be the first,’” Kelly said.
But Kelly — not a man who trifles with complacency — said it was much too soon to mention the D-word, knowing he has the daunting assignment of convincing his returning players they must start a new journey and get better.
“There is no dynasty,” Kelly said while standing in the middle of Hugh Freeze’s new locker room digs while his players packed up for the offseason. “We’re just glad to get a win tonight. Next year will be a life of its own. We do have a lot of people coming back and we’re excited about that.”
It’s a tantalizing prospect to consider as the defense returns 13 sophomores or juniors among its first 14 players and the offense loses just three senior starters.
“We want to come back stronger next year,” Lacey said.
Rival coaches are already sweating the details, trying to figure out how to at least slow them down.
Two words: Ball control, because a high school defense won’t stop them without a gush of turnovers.
Theodore stifled Williams in their two games and he still had three big plays — a 72-yard punt return and a 43-yard run for touchdowns and a 42-yard catch to set up another.
Bobcats coach Eric Collier said the semifinal against the Spartans was the state championship game and it was there Saraland proved it could be just as physical as the Bobcats, catapulting it to the breakout win in the Super 7. But Theodore also has its own ambitions for a Blue Map, which will give their region rivalry statewide implications.
While Kelly admires the maturity of his younger players, he knows it will be difficult to replace the 14 seniors who formed the winningest class in school history (45-8) and the current sophomores will be under a lot of pressure to surpass that record.
What challenges await? Rallying from 21 down in the fourth quarter? Driving 99 yards in the last minute to win? Playing with a 100-pound gunny sack of rocks strapped to each player?
“Coach finally broke the ice,” senior defensive lineman Jimmy Byrd said. “Now he knows what it feels like to win one and he’ll want that feeling every year.”
It was a surreal feeling for the players as they left the locker room to get on the bus and walked back across the field into the empty stadium, taking photos with their phones, savoring the silence and the scoreboard, which still proclaimed: SARALAND 38, MBHS 17.
“It’s crazy,” said senior offensive lineman Tyler Crenshaw, who looked around at the deserted steel canyon. “We were just playing out here and we just won state and all the people were cheering. We just won state and that’s been the plan since we started in February.”
When McWilliams smiled at the scene, he showed the braces on his teeth, a reminder of how young he is.
“I’ll remember this,” he said. “We’ll be back.”
And now a team that was inches away from losing to Homewood in overtime nearly three weeks ago is miles ahead of everyone else. The Spartans can control if they stay there.