Mobile Christian center Bo Cagle exults at the end of the Leopards’ 55-28 win over Madison Academy in the Class 3A state championship game Thursday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. (Vasha Hunt/al.com)
TUSCALOOSA — Bo Cagle was on his knees, a place he’s not usually found, unless he is in church or looking for a dog toy that rolled under the couch, but this was a special occasion.
“Yeah!” yelled Cagle, who paused to savor the moment.
“Yeah!” Cagle exclaimed again on the sideline, his fists thrust to the sky, as the final second melted away in Mobile Christian’s 55-28 victory over Madison Academy at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Thursday’s Class 3A state championship game.
All that was missing was a barbell since he was nearly in the correct posture to do some bench pressing. At that moment, with the adrenaline pumping, he could have hoisted more than 475 pounds, his current high and about the same weight as a couple of solid linebackers.
Cagle, the Leopards’ junior center, is accustomed to taking people off their feet. On the field, he usually puts opponents on their knees or worse, when he plants them like spring okra — and the okra’s best hope is to end up in somebody’s gumbo.
In the midst of Thursday’s celebration, Cagle remembered a time when he felt as low as a seed underground but he was a seedling preparing to burst forth, as were the rest of his future teammates.
It was at the 2019 state championship game, when Mobile Christian lost a late lead and lost to Piedmont 26-24. Cagle and his friend, Seth Boyington, were seventh graders who got pulled up to the varsity to make the trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium. There, Cagle learned it’s a lot tougher to lift a Blue Map than the total 1,810 pounds he can now get off the ground in the bench, squat and dead lift.
“We get the lead and Seth is telling me, ‘We’re going to get a ring! Can you believe it?’” Cagle said. “Our defensive backs were hurt and some of the guys had to have ammonia swabs, they were so tired. We had it in our hands and then we lose it. I was on the scout team and it hurt me.”
That hurt has been returned to the opposition, which may want to borrow those ammonia swabs if any are left over because the Leopards aren’t done. Led by a one-eyed coach, a baseball player who found out he could go yard with a football, a sweet-smelling linebacker and linemen who feasted on pancakes, many of Mobile Christian’s heavy lifters will be back next year to pursue a Class 4A Blue Map.
The heaviest weight of all might be the one lifted off coach Ronnie Cottrell’s back after two previous losses in the Super 7 and the good news is that it’s commonplace to follow a first Blue Map with others. Since 1996, when the Super 6 format began, 41 schools have won multiple championships and 16 of those have won at least four.
“I’d like to do it again,” said Cagle, a major college prospect and the heaviest lifter of the bunch who had 121 pancake blocks. “We’re going to move to 4A but we’re still going to have a good football team.”
The Leopards would not be denied in putting together the biggest blowout in the Class 3A finals since 2014, when Madison Academy pummeled Dale County 70-34, bringing the Mustangs back to the worst side of the full circle.
Mobile Christian was so good that Cottrell coached with one eye tied behind his back and might be the first half-blind coach to win in the Super 7.
Thank God he escaped the traditional ice-water bath most coaches receive after winning a championship.
“I think they knew I’d had a heart attack before,” Cottrell said afterward, perhaps only partly in jest.
There was no drama to trigger a heart attack Thursday. While Madison Academy stayed on its feet after getting repeatedly whacked on the kneecaps, it finally wobbled and splayed to the ground with a thud in the fourth quarter.
Cottrell had surgery to repair a detached retina the week before and, replete with sunglasses to protect his right eye, took on the look of a modern-day Douglas MacArthur minus the corncob pipe and braggadocio.
Cottrell didn’t outwardly show the swagger of the five-star general but inwardly, holding the reins of the best team he’s had at Mobile Christian, he bubbled with confidence in the week leading up to the game. To paraphrase MacArthur: “I shall return with a Blue Map,” Cottrell could have said.
Cottrell was ordered by his surgeon, Dr. Chris Semple, to look down to keep the gas bubble in his blurred right eye from expanding. But on Thursday he couldn’t help but look up. If he hadn’t, he would have missed the Leopards’ staccato scoring.
Cottrell was sorry only that the win came at the expense of Mustangs coach and old friend Bob Godsey.
“I’ll have to get on him,” Cottrell said. “A blind coach beat him today.”
Everyone else’s eyes were wide-open, especially when Damien Gatson drew back his arm to reach out and touch his array of receivers. He threw for five touchdowns with the precision of an Omega watchmaker. He completed passes to six receivers; three of those put away touchdown receptions of 38, 33, 52, 24 and 55 yards.
Maybe it was preordained that Cottrell would see everything out of his left eye, including the performance of his left-handed quarterback, whose clockwise spin coming into his receivers was a ticking time bomb which kept detonating.
Mobile Christian immediately presaged a calamitous afternoon for Madison Academy, scoring so fast that the Mustangs were looking for holes in their chests. In order, the touchdown drives, and that’s a misnomer, were three plays, two, three, four, three, two, three and a more leisurely seven; the Leopards scored all 55 points in just 10:14.
“That’s backbreaking,” Mobile Christian offensive coordinator Justin Barnes said. “Our ability to answer their scores was huge. It’s like playing mind games.”
Those games are likely to continue with even higher proficiency next season. Among those returning are Gatson, Cagle, running back P.J. Brown, offensive lineman Landyn Gardner, dominating defensive end Floyd-Dawens Boucard, two-way linemen Trey Matthews and Quraun Prince, defensive tackle Jaevin Jenkins, linebackers Kentonio Kelly and Aiden Ransom, defensive backs Sema’j Law and Jason Todd, and Carter Lewis, one of the state’s best kickers.
Gatson, an elite baseball prospect who has committed to South Alabama, has shown he has the tools of an elite quarterback and could be a two-sport athlete in college. By the way, he has lifted 1,365 pounds in the three primary stations.
Gatson is nearly as strong in combined pounds lifted as many of the linemen. Boucard is at 1,490 pounds, Jenkins 1,485, Matthews 1,355, Ransom 1,345, Gardner 1,210, Kelly 1,205 and Prince 1,195. Add Cagle’s 1,810 and that’s six tons — more than enough strength to hold another Blue Map.
Kelly, the leading tackler in Class 3A and an adept receiver who hauled Gatson’s last TD pass to the end zone Thursday while fighting a cramp, came out smelling like a rose to potential recruiters, even without the four bottles of cologne he packed for Tuscaloosa.
Boucard, who came from Canada and is developing into a Power 5 prospect, came close to having his year and maybe his career end when he was chopped down at the knees against Thomasville. While it was a bad sprain and he returned, he has a new appreciation for playing.
“I couldn’t do nothing without God,” Boucard said. “He showed me it could be over like that. I left my family to come play down here and then it could have been over without accomplishing my mission, which from day one was to win it all.”
The Leopards’ offensive line delivered 389 pancake blocks this season and the shoe sizes of Cagle (12), Gardner (13), Prince (12), left tackle Diego Camboia (14) and right tackle Bryson Fillingim (14) perfectly matched the footprints at the scene where each victim fell.
Mobile Christian clearly has the makings of another championship team and Cottrell no doubt realizes the history of teams making room for more Blue Maps after winning the first one.
“Nothing is more beneficial to a program than winning a championship,” Cottrell said. “This is going to be huge for our school.”
As Cottrell worked his way to the exit Thursday, he came back to the strong side of the full circle by hugging Alabama star linebacker Deontae Lawson, whose short touchdown run had given the Leopards the late lead over Piedmont in 2019. On his triumphal walk to the bus, cheering fans all around him, Cottrell held plastic coat hangers in one hand and the Blue Map in the other. It’s better to have empty coat hangers than an empty trophy case.