High school football fans on the Gulf Coast don’t have to be elderly to remember when the Daphne-Fairhope rivalry was annually the most anticipated game of the year in Baldwin County.
Both the Trojans and Pirates still have strong programs and will face off against each other on Sept. 27 at Daphne’s Jubilee Stadium. It will be a big game for sure, but it won’t even be the most important of the season for either team.
Fairhope has to contend with Theodore, McGill-Toolen and the other teams in Class 7A, while Daphne must navigate the treacherous Class 6A, Region 1, which has been described as the SEC West of Alabama high school football.
The days of Daphne and Fairhope dominating the Baldwin County high school football landscape were before Spanish Fort football came along in 2006 and won four state championships between 2010 and 2015.
It was also before the population explosion that has led to new public and private schools popping up across the county and even the creation of one new school district. As a result, the 2019 football season in Baldwin County is going to be defined by not only established state championship contenders but also programs at various stages of development.
One program, Gulf Shores, is not new but is starting anew as an independent school district.
“We really feel like we’re a new school with a new logo, new renovations and a new outlook,” said Gulf Shores coach Matt Blake. “We’re trying to build on that positive energy. You only get one chance to do it right the first time.”
The Dolphins are not the only ones with a chance to make a good early impression. The Orange Beach Makos, under coach Chase Smith, will play 10 games this season, split evenly between middle school and junior varsity as they build toward becoming a varsity program. The Elberta Warriors under coach Greg Seibert won two games last season and will play without the benefit of a senior class for the final time in 2019. The St. Michael Catholic Cardinals under the direction of coach Scott Phelps enter their third season and are ready to show they are ready to be a competitive Class 3A team.
Of course, there are the established teams that are already positioned to contend for championships. That begins with a strong group of Class 6A teams that have reason to believe they will be better than they were a year ago.
The Spanish Fort Toros went 11-2 last season and claimed the Region 1 championships. That record included 11 straight wins sandwiched between a season-opening loss to McGill-Toolen and third-round state playoff loss to Wetumpka. The Toros did not yield a single point in October while winning four regional games.
All-star kicker Matt Quinn is now playing for UAB, defensive back D.J. James will be suiting up for Oregon against Auburn at the end of the month and star offensive lineman Chris Turberville is at Davidson College.
But a vast array of talent returns. Defensive lineman Carlos Johnson has committed to play for South Alabama, while receiver Kris Abrams-Draine is set to play college football at Ole Miss. Before then he will do a little of everything for the Toros.
“There’s not a more explosive or dangerous player in the state,” Spanish Fort coach Ben Blackmon said of Abrams-Draine. “He can catch the ball, throw it, run it, go over the middle, catch screen passes and catch the ball deep.”
Abrams-Draine will benefit from the return of senior quarterback Jackson Burkhalter, who suffered a knee injury a year ago. He’s healthy now and looks the part of a future college quarterback.
Burkhalter’s brother, Christian, spent some time at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, but is back in Spanish Fort and ready for his junior season as a big wide receiver.
Expectations are high at Spanish Fort, but Blackmon wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like the way our guys have worked all offseason,” Blackmon said. “We know we’ve got a tough schedule but we like playing that opener against McGill-Toolen because it lets us know right away what we need to work on and where we might have some holes.”
Daphne also has a tough opener, as the Trojans will travel to Theodore to start the season. The Trojans have reached the playoffs for 21 straight seasons but haven’t won a state championship since 2010.
Head coach Kenny King must replace star defensive back Christian Williams, a Miami signee, but there is talent available. The defense will be anchored by Hamilton Baker, who is expected to dominate as a linebacker/safety before continuing his career at Army. Junior quarterback Trent Battle is ready to take command of the offense after contributing as a sophomore last season.
“Everybody knows that Trent can run, but he’s proven that he can throw, as well,” said King, who enters his fourth season at his alma mater. “We have some electric players on offense.”
The Baldwin County Tigers have been known in recent years as the best team in Alabama to not make the playoffs. Two years ago they were 7-3, followed by a 6-4 mark a year ago. Yet, they are still looking to break through with a playoff berth.
Their chances will be greatly bolstered by sophomore quarterback Anthony Mix Jr., the son of the former Auburn receiver. The younger Mix has already been attracting national attention from recruiters even though he just turned 15 years old.
“It was tempting to put him out there at a bunch of different positions because he’s so explosive with the ball in his hands,” said BCHS coach Nathan McDaniel. “But he’s such a natural leader. There’s no question he’s a quarterback all the way. We put him in at quarterback down the stretch last year and won four of our last five games, so we feel very good about the future of our offense.”
The lone loss in that stretch run was a 10-0 shutout against Spanish Fort. The schedule is difficult again this year, beginning with the season-opener against Murphy.
Robertsdale is trying to build a successful program under first-year coach Kyle Stanford. The Bears won two games last season in the ultra-competitive Class 6A, Region 1. Stanford has liked what he’s seen since arriving from Olive Branch, Mississippi.
“I haven’t one time mentioned wins and losses,” Stanford said. “We want our guys to have a great experience and be productive citizens. If we keep working as hard as we have then the wins will take care of themselves.”
Fairhope won eight games in 2017 and followed that up with seven wins a year ago. There’s reason to believe the Pirates will be good for the foreseeable future.
“Football is the thing to do now in Fairhope,” said coach Tim Carter. “We feel really good about where the program is now.”
One reason for the optimism is the return of junior Riley Leonard, who played mostly wide receiver a year ago. With the graduation of Devin Mitchell, Leonard is now ready to take over as one of the most talented quarterbacks in the region.
“We’re really excited about Riley,” Carter said of the star basketball and football player. “South Alabama has already offered him as a quarterback. That’s the first of what will be many more to come.”
Fairhope opens the season at home against Wetumpka, a recent power.
Speaking of tough opponents, no team in the state faces a slate like the Foley Lions, whose first three games are against Prattville, Thompson and Theodore. After a disappointing 2018, head coach Tad Niblett is looking for positive steps against the difficult slate.
“When you’ve had failures like we did last year you can tuck your tail and go hide or you can go to work to get better,” Niblett said. “That’s what we’ve done.”
Phil Lazenby has been the head coach at Bayside Academy for 12 seasons, leading the Admirals to the state playoffs nine times and the state championship game once. Last year Bayside won two, lost four, then won the last four games on the way to a 6-4 overall record. The Admirals barely missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
But Lazenby is optimistic about the Admirals this year, including the potential of senior quarterback Jake Cunningham.
“Jake is as good as any of the big-time quarterbacks around. I’d take him over just about any of them,” Lazenby said. “He’s only 5-foot-10, which is why he isn’t being recruited more, but he can do everything you want a quarterback to do.”
Bayside Academy’s four wins in a row represents the longest active winning streak of any Baldwin County team.
So, even in a year when so many programs are in transition, there are legitimate championship hopes at several Baldwin County programs. It’s time to find out which teams are ready to reach those lofty heights in 2019.
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