Saraland coach Jeff Kelly talks with his team after a summer 7-on-7. The Spartans will face nationally ranked Lipscomb Academy on Aug. 25 in a game which will be televised on ESPN. The kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Spartans Stadium. (Todd Stacey/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Proving it belongs among the nation’s elite high school football programs and setting the stage to win a second straight state championship aren’t priorities for Saraland coach Jeff Kelly and his players, although both could happen in the Aug. 25 season opener against Lipscomb Academy.
ESPN announced Wednesday it will nationally televise the 7 p.m. game between the Spartans and Mustangs from Saraland.
While the Spartans finished 14-1 and won their first Class 6A Blue Map last year, Lipscomb has built a national reputation after winning back-to-back Division II-AA Tennessee state championships and five in all.
The Mustangs, who are ranked as high as No. 13 nationally in preseason polls, have won 21 straight games. They’re coached by NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Mawae, who succeeded Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, who left for UAB. And they are accustomed to being measured coast-to-coast. They beat four-time Alabama Class 7A champion Thompson last year 24-14 on ESPNU and they will open this season a week before playing Saraland by hosting No. 4 IMG Academy.
“With the success they’ve had and the number of well-respected and talented players they have coming back, it’s the most challenging opponent we’ve ever opened the season with,” Kelly said.
But he insisted the Lipscomb game is not about the Spartans carving out room for themselves nationally or declaring the rest of the season a downhill roll to another state championship if they win.
“That may be thinking about it too deeply,” Kelly said. “It’s an opportunity to play one of the best teams in the country, to play them at home and have it broadcast by ESPN throughout the world. It’s an opportunity to showcase what the Saraland school system and the city has got going. It gives us a measuring stick going into the season, a gauge of where we’re at, and a carrot to start the season off.”
But Kelly said the Spartans don’t need extra motivation to live up to massive expectations.
“They just love to play ball,” Kelly said of his players. “They’re not going to get caught up in what everybody else wants us to be.”
Given the fact talk began immediately of Saraland accomplishing a Class 6A threepeat after winning its first Blue Map last December, Kelly philosophically said the Spartans won’t repeat this year.
“It’s tough to win,” he said. “Repeat is such a lie of a word. We’ll have a different team this year than we had last year. We’ll have different personnel and different leadership. It’s not about repeating, it’s about, ‘Hey, can we go get it done?’ Last year’s team got it done. This year’s team hasn’t done a thing.”
Of course, Saraland has the tools to do it with the return of five-star receiver Ryan Williams, the first sophomore to win the state’s Mr. Football, four-star quarterback K.J. Lacey, four-star defensive lineman Antonio Coleman and a roster laden with 23 potential college prospects.
Williams has committed to Alabama, Lacey to Texas and Coleman has been offered by Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Penn State, among others.
The Mustangs also have star power in defensive back Kaleb Beasley and linebacker Edwin Spillman, both of whom are four-star recruits who have committed to Tennessee, plus four uncommitted junior prospects in safety C.J. Jimcoily, offensive lineman Chauncey Gooden, quarterback Jackson Kilburg and linebacker Kris Thompson.
Those in the national TV audience and in a sold-out Spartans Stadium will be keenly interested to see if Lipscomb’s defense — which allowed only one touchdown in three playoff games last year — can slow down Saraland’s offense, which averaged 43 points per game last season.
“The challenge is in getting better every day and I think we have done that,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to keep doing that.”
Saraland principal Brent Harrison said the broadcast is a chance to show what has taken a long time for Kelly and his staff to build.
“This is not a one-year deal,” he said. “He’s worked hard for over a decade to get the program where it is today.”
The Spartans’ season tickets recently sold out as fast as they went on sale.
“Eveybody renewed,” Kelly said. “There weren’t a lot of new tickets. They sold in the first five minutes. We didn’t have enough to go around. We could have sold a bunch more.”
This will be the second time Saraland has been featured in an ESPN game. The Spartans went on the road to beat Heard County (Ga.) 17-14 to open the 2017 season but neither team was ranked nationally.