HATTIESBURG (MS) – Alabama All-Star football team head coach Steve Smith praised the effort of his players after completing their fourth workout in 36 hours Wednesday. Alabama’s 40-man team of current seniors will face Mississippi Saturday at noon in the 31st Alabama-Mississippi All-Star football classic at Carlisle Faulkner Field/M.M. Roberts Stadium on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.
The Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game series, a partnership between the AHSAA and AHSADCA and the Mississippi Association of Coaches (MAC), is making its second appearance in Mississippi after playing the first 28 games in Alabama beginning in 1988. Mississippi won the 2015 game 28-21 at Hattiesburg. Last year’s game, a 25-14 win by Alabama, was played at Cramton Bowl and improved Alabama’s record to 22-8 in the series.
“We had a very good morning practice,” Smith said. “We dragged a little in the afternoon workout, but that is to be expected a little. The players who just finished their season have been fine, but a lot of these guys finished their season much earlier in the playoffs.”
He was very pleased with the work of his eight offensive linemen, especially Robert E. Lee’s Cameron Hill and Spanish Fort’s Grant Betts. “Both of these guys were tackles on their teams and they are also working at center right now for us,” Smith said. “They are showing their versatility.” H-back Clay Stearns of Mountain Brook is the long snapper.
He said Beauregard Coach Rob Carter, who is working with the offensive line this week, has been happy with the players’ eagerness to work at different positions.
“With only eight offensive linemen, they need to be versatile,” Smith said. “They have really stood out this week.”
Smith said quarterbacks James Foster of Sidney Lanier and Jack West of Saraland have shown steady improvement in the first four workouts. “We have a tremendously talented group of receivers, maybe the best I have ever seen in this game,” Smith said. “The quarterbacks and receivers seem to be getting a little better day with their timing.”
He said Paul Bryant’s Seth Williams, Hoover’s Shedrick Jackson, Central-Phenix City’s Justyn Ross and Bob Jones’ Damontrez Brown are all capable big-play receivers. “Nathaniel Watson of Maplesville is also one of the best athletes on the team and Anquaevious Pollard of Lanett is a big, talented player at 6-foot-7,” Smith said. “Our tight end Michael Parker (of Westminster Christian) is also 6-6. This is a good-looking group of guys.
“I think our receivers will make some big plays for us on Saturday. Defensively, our front rotation is also looking good.”
He said the secondary, linebackers and front rotation of linemen are really coming together. Smith said the coaches expect another solid practice Thursday morning at 9, and will then scale back to work more on the mental aspects of the game and special teams in tomorrow’s afternoon practice.
Both squads were scheduled to go to Hattiesburg Country Club Wednesday night for a dinner and program. Temple Baptist Church hosted both teams Tuesday night. While two practices are set for Thursday, Alabama will go through only one workout on Friday morning at 9 a.m., and will participate in a community service project Friday afternoon.
TELEVISION: The 31st annual Alabama-Mississippi Football All-Star Classic will be televised live over Raycom’s network of stations in Alabama and Mississippi. Kickoff is set for noon.
RADIO: The AHSAA Radio Network will live-stream the audio over the internet and will also carry the game live over its network of radio stations across the state.
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St. Paul’s Episcopal 17, Briarwood Christian 14
TUSCALOOSA – St. Paul’s Episcopal receiver Oliver Willman snagged a 6-yard pass from quarterback Swift Lyle on fourth-and-goal with 1:54 left in the fourth quarter to give the Saints (14-1) a 17-14 victory over previously unbeaten Briarwood Christian (14-1) in the Super 7 Class 5A state football championship game Thursday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium here.
The Willman caught another 6-yard pass one play earlier with Coach Steve Mask’s Saints facing a third-and-10 from the Lions’ 12-yard line. The two pass receptions highlighted a last-ditch 10-play, 78-yard drive that delivered St. Paul’s its third state championship in the last four years and fourth state title overall.
St. Paul’s scored first with a 20-yard field goal by Wilson Beaverstock in the first quarter to take a 3-0 lead. Hudson Hartsfield, who finished with five catches for 78 yards, put Coach Fred Yancey’s Lions on top 7-3 with a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Michael Hiers midway through the second quarter. Hiers and Hartsfield hooked up again at 1:07 left in the third period on a 12-yard touchdown connection as the Lions built a 14-3 lead.
The Saints answered that score quickly when Jarrett Eaton hauled in a 57-yard touchdown pass from Lyle just 51 seconds later. The extra-point try failed, however, and Briarwood clinged to a 14-9 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Briarwood dominated most of the fourth quarter driving to the St. Paul’s 22-yard line with just over four minutes to play. Facing a fourth-and-3, the Lions faked a field-goal try but the pass fell incomplete.
The Saints took then began their final march of the season – driving to the winning touchdown in big part thanks to a 56-yard pass from Lyle to Jalyn Armour-Davis on fourth-and-14 to the Lions 10-yard line with time running out.
Lyle finished 14-of-22 for 236 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors for the Saints. He also rushed for 33 yards on four carries. Eaton had three catches for 74 yards, Armour-Davis had three catches for 55 yards and Willman had three for 29 yards. Jordan Ingram rushed for 44 yards on 16 carries and had two receptions for another 49 yards.
Hiers finished 8-of-18 for Briarwood for 113 yard passing. Luke Prewett had nine rush attempts for 52 yards and J.R. Tran-Reno had 33 yards on four tries.
Daniel Beard had 12 tackles and Gordon Mathers had 10 to pace the St. Paul’s defense. Gabriel Russell had nine stops and Mark Hand had seven for Briarwood.
The 2017 Super 7 State Championships conclude Friday with three games: UMS-Wright (12-2) meeting Fayette County (12-2) at 11 a.m., in the 4A championship, Lanett (14-0) versus Leroy (12-2) in the 2A finals at 3 p.m., and Wetumpka (13-1) facing Pinson Valley (14-0) in the 6A finals at 7 p.m. All games are being televised live by Raycom Media over its Raycom/AHSAA Network of affiliates and D-2 stations. The games are also being live video-streamed over the NFHS Network’s subscriber-based network and on You Tube. For more TV information, go to www.pathtotheplayoffs.com and click on “Where to Watch.”
The AHSAA Radio Network is also broadcasting all games across the state. The link is available at www.ahsaa.com.
By Joseph Goodman
There is no easy way into the heart of Alabama.
It's not near Birmingham. Not even close. It's not near Huntsville, or Mobile, or Montgomery or even Nick Saban's Tuscaloosa. It's not near anything, really, except for an old cotton gin, and a few paper mills.
The heart of Alabama is Sweet Water High School, and it's down a small country road in Marengo County, and then an even smaller country road, and then a piece of road so small and so familiar to the people who travel it, they know exactly where the lazy dogs will be resting every day as they drive by. Down that road, in southwest Alabama, is the heart of this state, and you can't begin to understand it unless you go there.
When it comes to finding Sweet Water, or a place like it, when it comes to searching for the heart of Alabama, the Internet is a useless tool. It will only get you more lost if you try to use it. Indeed, Sweet Water is so small it's not on Google Maps.
But it's there, just like it has always been -- town population: 246.
There is a blinking yellow light in Sweet Water, but the logging trucks don't slow down for it. Small clouds of ditch cotton rise up and dance down main street as they drive past. The local cotton gin has been in operation since 1840. This has been a big year for Alabama cotton, so they might be ginning in Sweet Water until February.
A lot of people have been questioning the heart of Alabama these days, and wondering what it is, and knowing what it is not, so I went for a visit. If there are such things as "Alabama values," Sweet Water High School is where they teach them.
"If this country ran like this school does, we wouldn't have any problems," said Sweet Water principal Phyllis Mabowitz. "We are a picture of our community, and the population here in this part of the state."
I spoke with teachers, coaches and students, the librarian and the mayor, the guys working the cotton gin and the woman who cooks the butterbeans and collard greens at the local diner. Sweet Water is timber country, and 11 tiny communities feed the school. Anyone in the county can attend, but Sweet Water also takes people from outside Marengo County if there's room.
On the eve of Sweet Water's proudest moment in years -- an appearance in the Class 1A state football championship game on Thursday -- I went and spent the day. It is a special place, and easy to love. The people of Sweet Water and Marengo County are proud of their K-12 school, which excels in both academics and athletics. They call it the "treasure in the forest." It truly is.
Sweet Water might be the best little school in Alabama.
"This is a family," said librarian Patricia Jones. "You don't meet a stranger when you come here. The people are just down home."
Jones says she has the best job in the school. She gets to "roll around on the ground" and read to kindergarteners in the morning, and then helps seniors with their literature and research papers in the afternoon.
"Because we are such a small school, we get to influence the kids all the way from preschool to when they graduate from high school," Jones said. "And the big kids get to influence the little kids."
On Tuesday, the library was transformed into a banquet hall for Sweet Water's annual senior luncheon. Jones bragged that 11 of her upperclassmen scored above a 30 on the ACT. For a school with a senior class of 42 in rural Alabama, that's a remarkable number. The next day, a researcher from the University of Missouri visited the school for an ongoing project, and told the Mabowitz, the principal, "I need to come here more often. I sometimes lose hope that there are places still like this in education."
Sweet Water is one of 12 remaining K-12 schools in the state. It is 61 percent white and 37 percent black. Almost 70 percent of those who attend receive free or reduced lunches. Some of the bus routes are over 90-minutes long. Much like the rest of Alabama, Sweet Water is a place shaped by its past, but looking to the future.
"Our parents don't have lots of resources, but the resource they have is work ethic," Mabowitz said. "They expect that from their children, and we see it in our classrooms, and we see it on our playing fields."
In the heart of Alabama, there's a thing people value almost more than a nurturing classroom environment for their children. That thing is high school football. At Sweet Water, they play the game very well. Sweet Water has won eight state championships (1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010), and they'll try to make it nine at 3 p.m. on Thursday against Pickens County.
To reach the AHSAA's Super 7 at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, Sweet Water had to come from behind against defending state champion Maplesville, and last week's semifinal opponent, Wadley. The bus ride to Wadley took almost four hours, according to Sweet Water's star player, Shamar Lewis.
Lewis plays middle linebacker and running back for Sweet Water. Last week, he returned a fumble for a touchdown and assisted on a game-winning goal-line stand.
Before the football team left for Tuscaloosa and the state championship game, Lewis and his teammates walked through their school's hallway and high-fived the younger students. In Sweet Water's main building, the antique hardwood floors are polished to a dull shine from decades of lacquer and varnish. They creak and moan underfoot.
"We got caring people down here," Shamar said. "They all want to see you do good, and they're tough on you with your work because they want to see you do the best that you can. It's just good people to be around."
Sweet Water's football coach, Pat Thompson, grew up in the area. His father worked in the timber industry, but he was called to coaching. Like most everyone in Sweet Water, Thompson hunts and fishes and goes to church for fun. He was nice enough to entertain this reporter's questions before his team's big game. In the heart of Alabama, they are nothing if not accommodating.
What makes Sweet Water so special?
"The people," he said.
His inspirational motto for this year's team borrows a verse from the Bible, Hebrews 12:1. Finish strong, reads a quote on Thompson's cluttered wall ... "and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
The bible verse is tacked above another quote he values as a leader of young people. It's from the famous American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger: "What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches."
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for Alabama Media Group. He's on Twitter @JoeGoodmaJr.