Photo | Mike Kittrell
Sixth in a series
The reaction is almost always the same. Ask one of the head coaches about the competition level in Class 6A, Region 1 football this season, and you’ll either get a head shake or a sigh and quite likely a combination of the two.
When the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) announced its reclassifications for football a few months back, a lot of attention was cast on Class 6A, Region 1. For good reason. The region, which was already considered competitive, had grown tougher. It had also grown in size, now featuring nine teams instead of the previous eight members.
Gulf Shores and Citronelle dropped down to Class 5A, Region 1, while Class 6A, Region 1 welcomed new members St. Paul’s from 5A and Theodore and Murphy, which moved down from 7A.
That created a region that includes Saraland, Spanish Fort, Theodore, McGill-Toolen, Baldwin County, St. Paul’s, Murphy, Robertsdale and Blount. That’s quite a battle expected for the region’s four playoff spots. Five teams in the region will have their season end with the regular season. And that will be a disappointment for those left out, especially considering six teams in the new region lineup made the playoffs last season. At least two of those teams won’t make the playoffs this season, maybe more.
How tough is the region? Three teams in the current lineup — Saraland, Spanish Fort and Theodore — won 10 games a year ago and Baldwin County and St. Paul’s had eight wins each. The current nine-team lineup combined for a record of 61-42 a year ago.
“You can probably make another note about how many were second- and third-round [playoff] teams,” Saraland head coach Jeff Kelly said when asked about the strength of the region. “There are several that made it.”
Some believe Class 6A, Region 1 may be the toughest region in the state and certainly, none of the head coaches of teams within the region will argue that assessment. Still …
“I don’t know that you can approach it any different [than previously],” Kelly said. “I don’t know that we approach a region game or a non-region game any different. We kind of think they’re all important and we have to be ready each and every week. We understand we’ve got a bunch of big challenges throughout our region and throughout our schedule.
“Whoever is left standing at the end of the season when the dust settles, that’s going to be four really good football teams, teams that have been tested against good opponents week in and week out. Hopefully, you can get through there and find your way to the playoffs healthy. And if you do, then you ought to feel good about being able to proceed through there.”
The Lagniappe Prep Picks Panel — radio show hosts Randy Kennedy and Pigskin Pete (Tim Taylor), as well as long-time sports reporter Darron Patterson and Lagniappe sports editor Tommy Hicks — pick Kelly’s Spartans to repeat as the region champ this season. Saraland received all four first-place votes. Theodore is the pick to finish second, followed by St. Paul’s in third. McGill-Toolen and Spanish Fort tied for fourth place in the voting, and were followed, in order, by Baldwin County, Blount, Robertsdale and Murphy.
“Region 1 has always been tough, but it seems like with the changes this year it may be the toughest that it’s ever been,” Kelly said. “There are good teams, but there is also a lot of change in the region this year. There are a lot of coaching changes and significant changes in staff and a lot of good players graduated out of our region from last year, including a lot of players that we had. It’s traditionally outstanding, but that’s the thing about football, what happened last year doesn’t matter. We won a bunch of games last year but that’s not going to carry over. We’ve got to go play them all and tee it up and see what happens.”
Kelly is right about the coaching changes. Four of the teams will have a new head coach this season — Chase Smith at Spanish Fort, Ham Barnett at St. Paul’s, Josh Harris at Blount and John McKenzie at Murphy. McKenzie won a state championship last season with Vigor in Class 4A.
“You look throughout our region and you’ve got a lot of changes — Spanish Fort from a coaching standpoint, St. Paul’s, those are some that jump out. You look at Theodore coming down [from Class 7A] … I mean, gracious! They whooped our tails last year, physically whooped our tails, so we know we’re going to have our hands full with them especially and really everybody across the board.
“It ought to be fun for the fans, it ought to be fun for the media. There’s probably going to be a lot of ice packs given away after Region 1 games. It will be a physical affair for sure.”
Kelly said the key to having a successful season, especially in a region as competitive as 6A, Region 1, is remaining healthy. He said that’s his biggest concern heading into the season.
“You have to get through the season, and then you’ve got to have your guys healthy and be ready to play [in the postseason],” he said. “We talk about it every year this time of year. When you look at the schedule it looks tough, but once the season gets started you don’t look past the one you have in front of you. We’ll take them one at a time and we’ll have 10 seasons of one game and try to put our best foot forward every time and see what happens.”
McGill-Toolen head coach Norman Joseph noted the uptick in the competitive level of the region as well.
“We knew we were in a tough region a year ago and then when the revamping took place, now we’re in a tougher situation,” he said. “Plus, we picked up two quality non-region games [vs. Catholic of Montgomery and St. Michael], so every Friday we better come ready to play because the folks that we’re playing are well-coached and they’ve got good athletes. We know that whoever we’re playing they are going to go after McGill-Toolen, so we’ve got to be well-prepared on game day.”
The tradition and reputation of the teams on the Yellow Jackets’ schedule are well known, Joseph added.
“Many of the teams are perennial playoff contenders and going all the way [to a state title],” he said. “So we know we’re in a real tough region. But you know, we don’t compete to go against patsies. We compete to play against the best. You’ve got to beat the best to be the best, and if you’re playing a lot of weak teams along the way you don’t get better and you really don’t know how good you are. But we had no idea we’d be going into something like we’re going into right now.”
Next week: Class 7A, Region 1
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