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Saraland sets the right example, even though some fans don’t

Saraland coach Jeff Kelly and the Spartans’ sideline react to the last play of Friday night’s Class 6A state championship game against Clay-Chalkville at Bryant-Denny Stadium. (Todd Stacey/Call News)

 

TUSCALOOSA — It hurt to breathe. Powerless to change history instead of making it, Saraland’s players gasped in disbelief to see K.J. Lacey, one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, face down on the well-worn turf of Bryant-Denny Stadium, a yard away from winning the state championship.

It hurt to breathe but breathe they did. Moving forward also hurt — they were frozen in time and place and perhaps felt that by standing still, they would not have to walk into a new world in which they were no longer state champions — but moving forward they did, their faces contorted by pain and anguish. Tears poured forth.

Long after the disconsolate Lacey was finally picked off the ground by his teammates, he said: “I wouldn’t say we thought we were invincible. But we’re the big dogs.”

They still are, despite a 31-28 loss to Clay-Chalkville Friday night in perhaps the most exciting game in Super 7 history.

After allowing the despair to ease off, Lacey saw things in a clearly comprehensible fashion, even as Saturday dawned gray and sullen in Tuscaloosa.

“We’ve just got to get up the next day and play the next play,” Spartans coach Jeff Kelly said. “These guys are champions.”

That hasn’t changed either — they were dominant in winning a Blue Map last year with many of these same players — but some were more overcast than others in Friday night’s aftermath.

Saraland lost but the program won’t fall apart, not unless those who have pilloried Kelly and demanded he be fired for going for the win on fourth down instead of kicking a tying field goal get their way.

Even as the coaches and players coped with their grief, these people were already taking a number and queueing up on social media, insisting on their pound of flesh. The Constitution gives them the right; it also gives them the right to be wrong.

“It’s such a bittersweet night, a tough night,” Kelly said. “We’ve all been in sports a long time and there are unbelievable joys and then there are nights like tonight. It was two great teams going at it.”

While it’s fair to take a wrench and a screwdriver to break down the mechanics of Kelly’s decision, it’s preposterous to tear him down, insist he get dragged out of Saraland by a horse and boiled in oil — and not necessarily in that order. You want some chaos? Get rid of the man who through years of toil has built one of the state’s elite programs.

Frankly, I don’t think those who are criticizing Kelly have the guts to yank his headphones off and take away his laminated play sheet and make such a decision. Many of those throwing the stones have not had to choose anything much more difficult than what to eat for dinner. If you’re wrong, could you handle all the vitriol thrown at Kelly from others like you?

“He’s the best coach in the country, I don’t care what anybody says,” five-star receiver Ryan Williams said. “We laid it all on the line.”

 

The right place at the right time

 

 

It’s doubtful Kelly was thinking about the horrid response on social media when he decided to go for the win on fourth down from the Cougars’ 10 with five seconds remaining instead of kicking the field goal. It was makeable, yes, but Kelly might not have wanted to risk having Tucker Singleton live with a possible miss for the rest of his life. Kelly has broad shoulders and bravely faced the consequences afterward.

There might have been some hubris involved but it was well-founded. Nobody had questioned Kelly’s play calling for years because of the lopsided wins and the talent he’s had to make it look easy. That, inevitably, is what he counted on at the end.

“I felt like I had some of the best players around, so we went for it,” Kelly said. “I believe in our kids. One play for 10 yards … If we’d have had a timeout, it would have changed things totally.”

It’s fair to ask if the Spartans had the best talent offensively — and they did — why not kick the field goal and win with that talent in overtime? Possibly because Kelly knew his team had been unable to run the ball reliably, giving Clay-Chalkville an advantage in the compressed area of the field the game would have been decided in and was decided in.

The autopsy wasn’t hard: The cause of death was Saraland’s inability to run the ball. Consider this when analyzing Kelly’s decision — the Spartans’ two longest gains on the ground were two improvised scrambles by Lacey on the last frenzied drive, 20 yards on third-and-10 and the last daring surge to the goal line, Blue Map in his sight and within reach. That was before linebacker D.J. Barber, with help from fellow linebacker Carlos Ivy, slammed into Lacey from behind and left one immortal yard which will be discussed for years to come.

Barber, who has committed to Auburn, hadn’t made a tackle in 13 straight plays in the fourth quarter until he stopped Lacey. Sometimes, games are decided by players in the right place at the right time and not some pre-ordained metaphysical formula devised by days and weeks of film study and planning.

“That whole drive I was saying to myself, ‘Please throw it my way,’” Barber told Auburnundercover.com. “Please run it my way.”

 

The best at their best

 

Cougars coach Drew Gilmer made a tough decision too, even as Williams shoved their overmatched secondary into a meatwagon with first-half bombs from Lacey — Gilmer saved Jaylen Mbakwe from going both ways until the last moments. If Mbakwe, a five-star cornerback who like Williams has committed to Alabama, had been forced to cover Williams throughout the night, he might have been weary enough at the end to make a mistake. Instead, Clay-Chalkville was going to make Lacey throw through barbed wire for the winning touchdown.

“Ryan’s a great player,” Mbakwe said. “But I felt like I could have won that matchup. We heard Saraland all week. I had it on my lock screen all week, that Saraland was going to win.”

At quarterback, Mbakwe did what was needed to beat the Spartans, often running through spaces no bigger than a TV tray to extract 130 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns.

Kelly knew his defense had to slow down Mbakwe in the running game; it didn’t. He hoped Mbakwe would be forced to play both ways; he wasn’t.

Those who criticize Kelly’s coaching should put things in perspective. Saraland had a one-legged offense with only 33 yards rushing and still had a chance to win. It had a defense that had to come to grips with the fact it couldn’t get a grip on Mbakwe.

Lacey was peerless in defeat, although the Cougars’ pass rush increasingly clogged his sinuses as the game ticked toward its conclusion, completing 27 of 38 passes for a Super 7-record 389 yards.

Williams, the Wizard of Awes, was at his best and if it was the junior’s last game with the Spartans, it was a fitting final curtain.

As when Miss Terry buys a box of Little Debbies, you know where they’re going and Saraland was going to Williams. He collected 11 receptions for a Super 7-record 232 yards. He literally willed himself to an 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by jumping in front of Santae McWilliams for the ball. He did everything but jam a banana in Clay-Chalkville’s exhaust pipe.

There is every indication Williams will remain committed to the Crimson Tide. During Friday night’s game, the two long TD passes from Lacey and the kickoff settled into hands covered with Alabama gloves, which he tossed to the ground after the final play when he sought to console his teammates.

Williams then posted a video on Instagram Saturday showing him fully dressed in an Alabama uniform —  wearing jersey No. 1 — and a Nick Saban-replica straw hat.

That’s likely Hollywood’s future. As for the Spartans in 2024, what happened Friday night does not detract from what they’ve done the past two years. They’ll challenge for the Blue Map again next year.

“They’ve been such a joy to coach,” Kelly said.

 

Remembered for the right things

 

Saraland’s players have never let anyone down where it truly matters — in setting the proper examples — and they didn’t let anybody down on the field either. They lost to a deserving champion which also beat Thompson. Kelly and his players handled the questions afterward with the class, maturity and dignity befitting a program of Saraland’s stature, something the critics should emulate.

In the years to come, the players under the silver helmets will enjoy successes they can barely imagine right now. Williams or Lacey could go on to win the Heisman Trophy but they’ll remember one yard. If the players return to Bryant-Denny Stadium to watch an Alabama game — or to play there — they’ll stare, if only briefly, at that yard. The pain will fade but the twinge will always be there.

But is it best to remember them for that? For a “feeling of failure at that moment,” as Lacey said? Or better to cherish them for the rarified quality of football they produced?

In the end, a yard should not ruin anybody’s life.

6 Comments

  1. Terry Faulk on December 10, 2023 at 10:49 am

    I have followed this team through co workers having kids playing. What a great team of coaches, players, parents, fans, and city support.
    It has been exciting to see such a team compete each week to ultimately wind up in a final game of the two best teams in the state. Unfortunately, in such a competition only one can be the champion, but there are two winners. What a feat to be undefeated going into that match up and playing to the skill level this team has exhibited each week.
    Congratulations to this team and as we are all taught, “do your best and leave it on the field.”
    I will also add, this is one of the best sports articles I’ve read in a long time. Very well worded and stated article by the writer from the call news. I truly enjoyed reading the article as it was written with much knowledge, wisdom, insight, and future direction to be followed. Congratulations on a great season.

  2. Erleen Dexter on December 10, 2023 at 12:36 pm

    What a great article..

    • Jairus cardsell on December 11, 2023 at 11:11 am

      One of the best articles I’ve ever read. Thank you Coach Kelly for everything you have done for this program. My heart stopped on that 1 yard line too.. very proud of these young men. Thank you Jimmy for this uplifting article I really needed it

  3. Chad on December 10, 2023 at 2:16 pm

    Unbelievably terrible take. No words in your rambling nonsense above made any logical sense whatsoever. Complete garbage.

  4. Michael Fagan on December 10, 2023 at 3:29 pm

    Those criticizing coach Kelly are simply ruined by the hard work and success Kelly has had. These same people probably have never stepped on a football field at any level. It’s real easy to be an ARMCHAIR coach cause none ever sees your success or failures. NUFF SAID!

  5. Perry Grant on December 11, 2023 at 10:51 am

    I remember back in the day a tie in the finals BOTH teams were declared co-champions. That happened a few times as I recall.

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