Saraland coach Jeff Kelly goes over a play with, clockwise from left, quarterback K.J. Lacey, receivers Ryan Williams and C.D. Gill and offensive lineman Brandon Autery Thursday as the Spartans wrapped up preparations for Friday night’s showdown against Lipscomb Academy. (Jimmy Wigfield/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
SARALAND — Saraland’s brand of football will be shown from Atlantic sands to Pacific forests, across the fruited plains and atop purple mountains’ majesty Friday night.
When ESPN televises the Spartans’ season opener against Lipscomb Academy, it will include three state championship trophies spread across two Southern states, a half-dozen of the country’s most elite players and enough recruiting stars to form another Milky Way.
This is not bad for a program that started out a little more than a decade ago with a football-sucking swamp on one side of its practice field.
“It was all grown up on one side, so you couldn’t throw to the right,” Saraland coach Jeff Kelly said Thursday while mopping the sweat off his brow after an energetic final practice under a covered artificial turf field which kept the sun off his players.
“If you threw to the right, it could roll downhill and you’d lose the ball,” Kelly recalled with a tinge of nostalgia. “You had to throw it to the left.”
And that’s when they finally got to practice. Kelly had to cancel his first one in 2011 because he didn’t have enough jerseys.
Now he has plenty of what he needs, for from that humble beginning sprang 12 straight playoff appearances, culminated by the school’s first Blue Map last season.
More Maps is the ultimate goal, so Kelly sought to put the nationally televised game against a nationally ranked team into perspective for his players as they encircled him after practice Thursday.
“You ought to wake up in the morning with a smile on your face and a twinkle in your eye,” he told them. “But this better not be the highlight of our season. What a sad story that would be.”
Linebacker Chris Thompson got the message long ago.
“It’s just another game, another chance to go to battle with my brothers,” he said. “This is no different than the last game of the season.”
But it’s distinguishable in other ways. How often can a person in, say, remote Monowi, Nebraska, be able to watch the Spartans on TV? The settlement’s only resident can pour herself free drinks at the local tavern because, as mayor — winning election by an overwhelming 1-0 — she gave herself a liquor license.
Kelly acknowledged Saraland now has a license to build a national reputation regardless of what happens but dismissed those trappings and made it clear winning is what the Spartans are about.
“We’re Saraland,” he said. “There is no room for moral victories. Our goal is to beat a team that is on top. This might be a win-win in a lot of places but we’re lining up to win it and as long as I am here, we’re not going to approach it any other way.
“It is a chance to go beyond local and state, broaden our brand and put our stamp on a bigger stage and our kids are not going to back down from any of it.”
When the ball is finally kicked off at 7 p.m., both teams will be on the back side of the setting sun with temperatures on the artificial surface reaching 100 degrees.
“Our guys have done a good job pushing through the last three weeks in the heat,” Kelly said. “We’re ready to tee it up and play somebody else.”
That somebody else is two-time defending Tennessee state champion Lipscomb, which is ranked No. 25 nationally in the latest MaxPreps poll after losing its season opener to No. 4 IMG Academy 35-10 last Friday. But Kelly said the score was deceptive.
“That was a ballgame until late in the third quarter,” he said. “A play or two could have gone the other way that could have turned the tide. IMG won the game but there was plenty to see that concerns you and worries you.”
Such as a strong run defense, led by four-star inside linebacker Edwin Spillman, who has committed to Tennessee.
“We’ve got to do a good job in the trenches and fighting that war in there,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to be physical.”
He is also wary of the scrambling ability of four-star quarterback Deuce Knight, who transferred from Lucedale, Miss., late in the summer. But the Mustangs had trouble with IMG’s pass rush last week and the Spartans noticed.
“I saw that,” Thompson said. “Maybe we can make them run the ball more than they like to. No quarterback has fun being hit.”
Meanwhile, far from being restricted to throwing only to the left now, Saraland has become an ambidextrous passing team and then some — led by receiver Ryan Williams and quarterback K.J. Lacey, two of the nation’s top prospects.
Fans wedged into Spartans Stadium will see more talent on one field in a few hours than most see in a season or a lifetime.
Williams, the five-star, No. 1-ranked wide receiver in the country and the No. 3 overall player nationally in the 2025 class, according to On3’s composite, will battle Lipscomb four-star cornerback Kaleb Beasley.
Williams, who has committed to Alabama, and Beasley, who has committed to Tennessee, are the top players in their respective states.
The four-star Lacey, who has committed to Texas, is the No. 3 quarterback in the country in the 2025 class and Knight is No. 4.
Saraland has four of the top juniors in Alabama in On3’s rankings — Williams, Lacey (No. 7), defensive lineman Antonio Coleman (No. 14) and receiver Dillon Alfred (No. 15).
Lipscomb has four-star offensive guard Chauncey Gooden and three-star safety C.J. Jimcoily, who will also help cover Williams.
The Mustangs will need the help. They gave up big plays to IMG and, although they have undoubtedly made adjustments, that could be a good omen for the Spartans.
“We feel like we’ve got a good number of guys who can create conflict,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have opportunities to do that.”
And an opportunity for Saraland to improve to 12-1 in season openers under Kelly.
“We focus on ourselves, on the things we do well,” he said. “We worry about our side of things. But now the real adversity and challenges will start and we’ll see just how mature we are starting this Friday night.”