From here on through 7A, we’ll break each preview into north and south, with the southern half leading off and our state finals predictions in the north article.
The southern half of Class 4A was full of questions early on. After two losses in their first three games, was Leeds done dominating? They emphatically answered that by winning 12 straight games and their second straight state championship. Things are different with Keith Etheredge gone to Pell City. So, can Leeds continue dominating with Lee Gibson? Munford has stepped up as a threat the last three seasons, including the first under Bill Smith. The Lions look much more polished offensively, but can the defense catch up in 2016? UMS-Wright and Andalusia both looked dominant in region play, but each bowed out to Region 3’s Leeds and Munford in the quarterfinals. Now, they’re joined together in Region 1 to make for an explosive race for the region title. Region 2 and Region 4 look to be scarce for teams that can make it to Auburn, but if anyone from each region is to be looked at, it’s likely to be Trinity Presbyterian and Bibb County.
UMS-Wright: UMS-Wright has been long dominant in the Gulf Coast when it comes to 4A. Since 2000 (putting aside their two years in 5A), the Bulldogs have won 11 of 14 region titles and an astounding five state championships. They could be seen as the Hoover of 3A, 4A, and 5A. Terry Curtis has built a power in which head coaches have left their jobs to take assistant positions at UMS-Wright. His teams have only missed the quarterfinals once in his 17-year tenure. But it isn’t enough for the Bulldog fan base. 2013, 2014, and 2015 saw devastating ends to great seasons shy of a finals appearance. 2013 was a heartbreaking two-point loss to Charles Henderson while 2014 and 2015 saw humiliating defeats at the hands of Leeds in their own backyard of Erwin S. Cooper Stadium. With Leeds’ future now in question under a new head coach, UMS-Wright has to see this as their time to take full advantage. They’ll bring back First-Team All-State athlete Michael Matthews to help make that happen. They’ll face an early test when Andalusia comes to Mobile on September 9th.
Andalusia: Andalusia has been softly making a small semblance of noise the last ten years. 10 playoff appearances in the last 12 seasons, four region titles, and two semi-final appearances since 2004 show the Bulldogs are serious about contending with the more well-known names in the class. This also follows about 15 years of pain that saw the Bulldogs as nothing but a footnote in the football landscape. Now, Andalusia has been looking to return to the days of Don Sharpe in the 1970s, when Andalusia made four title games in five years and won their only state playoff championships in ’76 and ’77. This past season was one of Andalusia’s best lately, finishing 4th in the state rankings and losing in the quarterfinals by two on the road to Munford. Now, they’ll have to get through the one team they lost to in the regular season, UMS-Wright to win another region title. Senior First-Team running back Jamal Hourel returns for Andalusia.
Thomasville: What happened to the Jack Hankins regime? From 2002 to 2011, the Tigers made it to two state finals, won one, and made two more quarterfinals. They were on the same level as then-4A rival Jackson, even better for a longer period of time. The last four years, Thomasville has slowly declined. They’ve lost in the first round each year since 2012 and have seemingly lost their bite. They’re no longer a feared leader of 4A. It’s not that their defense is struggling is region play. It’s their offense that has changed for the worst. The last two seasons, the Tigers have averaged 10 points less on offense than 2013 and 18 less than 2012. It’s a problem that has to be corrected of the Tigers won’t get back to form any time soon. If this season is another first-round exit, perhaps it’ll be time for serious change in Thomasville.
W.S. Neal: The Eagles are coming off one of their best seasons from a record standpoint, finishing 8-3 but losing in the first round 20-0 to Munford. It’s funny, we know of W.S. Neal as a program mostly because of their crosstown rivalry with T.R. Miller in Brewton. But looking back at W.S. Neal, this program hasn’t had much prestige to it since the mid-90s. A couple of 0-10 seasons, multiple seasons under .500, and no region titles in the last 19 seasons have done a lot of damage to image of W.S. Neal. To make things worse, Neal’s 8-3 season last year came against teams with a combined record of 57-66. It doesn’t look like Thomasville or W.S. Neal will be great challengers to UMS-Wright, that’ll be up to Andalusia. But these two programs have shown they’re capable of making a run. Neal’s just more sporadic than Thomasville.
Monroe County: The Tigers had a weak 4-6 season last year, yet it was an improvement in Juan Williams’ second season after going 0-10. There’s a pulse in Monroeville. Now, they’ll look to knock Thomasville or W.S. Neal off their playoff perch, but won’t challenge for a region title. What they do this year will determine if they’re ready when 2017 comes around.
Satsuma: The Gators are looking forward to playing in their new $4.2 million stadium this year, and it looks glorious. Coach Justin Thomas has commented on how the team has grown with the new stadium, but this is still Satsuma, who have only made the playoffs four times in school history. Thomas may be Satsuma football’s providence, but they’re far away from contending for a title.
Escambia County: Escambia County was once a team that made noise, having won two state playoff titles. However, things have been going well in Atmore. The last five years have seen a combined record of 12-38, and Royce Young has gone 1-9 in each of his first two seasons. Change to 4A could get them one or two extra wins, but nothing near enough needed.
|#||Aaron Daniel||Jon Lunceford|
|7||Escambia County||Escambia County|
Trinity: The Wildcats have been a magnificent model of a program on the field under Randy Ragsdale. 11 region titles, a state title, and 24 playoff appearances in Ragsdale’s 26 seasons. Ragsdale’s also been at Trinity for more than half of the football program’s history. With Andalusia out of the way for two years, Trinity has their chance to take control of Region 2. The ‘Cats come off an 8-4 season that was average at best from a scoring standpoint, but it came against a combined opposition record of 82-63. They were unbeaten at home, but went 2-4 on the road. That’s where they have to change if they want to be more than just region champions. They lose their only All-State member, kicker Robert Adams. But going 8-4 and 6-1 in region play with only an All-State kicker shows this team doesn’t need star power to get things done.
St. James: St. James isn’t a bad team, they just had a bad record while finishing third in their region. Close losses to Elmore County and Trinity ruined what could’ve been seen as a much better season. Yes, the Trojans didn’t win back-to-back region crowns, but they were up against an Andalusia machine from last year and a Trinity program that has as much stability as there is. Let’s also not forget that 2014 was St. James’ first region title since 1999. But St. James is used to better times. For 12 seasons from 1993 to 2004, the Trojans made the playoffs each year. However, for the last 11 years St. James has only made five postseasons. Fans expect better. The Trojans will return First-Team linebacker Sterling Jones to not only make another playoff, but challenge Trinity for the region title.
Catholic Montgomery: Aside from Trinity and St. James, no other team in the new Region 2 made the 2015 playoffs so this is wide open, and it’s practically non-existent for another team to win the region. That being said, of the ones remaining Catholic Montgomery was just outside the playoffs last year. In fact, outside the playoffs is a perfect way to describe Catholic Montgomery. The Knights have not made the playoffs since 2008 and only seven times in school history. However, there appears potentially be light at the end of the tunnel with Aubrey Blackwell. Blackwell led the Knights to four wins in his first season last year. That’s not meaningful except when you consider that hasn’t been done in the first season of a head coach at Catholic since 1999. When you also see a Second-Team offensive lineman returning in Brian Anderson, there is reason for hope for the Knights.
Ashford: Their last region title was in 2003, and we don’t expect that to change. The Yellow Jackets aren’t a bad bunch though, they’re an average bunch who had a bad 2015. After two straight playoff appearances, Ashford took a big step back with a 3-7 season. Their biggest positive to take away is they beat Catholic Montgomery last year and they get Trinity and St. James at home this year.
Dale County: Dale County had the biggest regression of any team in any class from the 2014 to 2015 season. They lost so much senior talent from a 3A state finals squad and couldn’t cope. Pate Harrison went 31-7 in his first three seasons prior to 2015, and that was with a bunch that had gone 3-27 in the three years preceding. Time will tell if 2015 was an aberration for the Warriors or the start of something much more troubling.
Alabama Christian: The Eagles went 1-9 while producing an All-State linebacker. That doesn’t seem to hold anything promising. Add in that Alabama Christian is 6-24 in three years under Bill Moore, it doesn’t look any better. They are coming from 5A, so there may be some great relief from the change in competition, but they also averaged just 10.6 points on offense and gave up 40.2 points a game on defense.
Bullock County: Tough to get worse than this. The Hornets haven’t won a game in region play since 2009. They haven’t won two region games in a season since 2000. Even further, they’ve never (let me repeat that, never) had a winning season in region play. Since their last overall winning season in 1984 at 5-4 when there were only three region/area games, Bullock County is a combined is 54-252 with a region record of 10-143. If ever a promotion/relegation model was needed to put a higher class team down into 1A, they’d be the example program.
|#||Aaron Daniel||Jon Lunceford|
|3||St. James||Catholic Montgomery|
|4||Dale County||Alabama Christian|
|6||Alabama Christian||Dale County|
|7||Bullock County||Bullock County|
Leeds: The last decade has been a blessing for the Leeds football program. We should say that Keith Etheredge has been a blessing for the Green Wave. Ten playoff appearances, six region titles, four state titles, and two perfect seasons have put Leeds in a class just shy of 7A’s Hoover and Edgewood Academy out of AISA. They’ve been on a second tier with the likes of Prattville, Spanish Fort, and Madison Academy in the last decade. But the Green Wave train suddenly looked to be in trouble with the departure of Etheredge from his alma mater to nearby 6A Pell City. Intrigue went about who Leeds would hire to replace such a domineering figure. In the end, they went with former Tuscaloosa County head coach Lee Gibson. Gibson left TC after an 0-10 season, their first winless season since 1975. Gibson wasn’t a bad coach, he just wasn’t at the level of Robert Higginbotham. He finished TC with a record of 42-36. He certainly doesn’t look to be at the level of Etheredge either, and while it is a lower classification, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking for talented teams and coaches, one of those in their region. Gibson will need to buckle in very quickly if he wants to keep the Leeds train on the tracks and not steering back into past moderate performances. Leeds loses six All-State members to graduation, but they bring back First-Team D-lineman Isiah Sharp-Perry.
Munford: Bill Smith was one of the biggest stories of the offseason between 2014 and 2015. The former Shades Valley coach was let go for reasons we still don’t have an indication of after taking the Mounties to 19 wins in his last two years. Lo and behold, Shades Valley’s loss was Munford’s extremely fortunate gain. The Lions had lost Will Wagnon to 7A’s Hazel Green and left the program wondering if they’d be able to keep the momentum Wagnon had started going. Smith was just the answer. Smith and Wagnon have two very different ways of doing things. Wagnon seems to look more to defense. Smith is about full speed ahead offense. Smith’s offenses at Shades Valley and Munford have scored at least 400 points in each of the last three years with 18 of 38 games of 40 or more points scored. The problem for Munford was holding teams under 40, something they failed to four times. They only won one of those games, a 49-48 overtime thriller in the regular season against Leeds. If the Lions can hold an opponent to 28 or less, they’re likely to win. But their offense won’t always be there, and on those nights, the defense has to be able to act as a stonewall to the opposition. Smith’s first year was a successful one, but Munford has to smell blood in the water with Etheredge gone from Leeds. They’ll look to take advantage of a big opportunity, and they’ll have Second-Team quarterback Avery Harris to make it happen.
Handley: Handley also had coaching questions after 2014. Mike Battles Sr. was forced to resign after back-to-back losing seasons and constant regression after Handley’s 2011 3A state championship. The Tigers wondered who they could bring in to get back to form quickly. Their man was found in Anniston at White Plains. Larry Strain had a storied career at 2A Woodland. He then headed to White Plains for family reasons, but after a poor 2-8 season and seeing no prospects with that program, Strain accepted the job in Roanoke last year. It was definitely the right move as Handley went 8-3 with wins over Munford, Anniston, and Central Clay County. After a tough loss to Leeds, the Tigers still looked good for a second-place finish and home game in round one. But a Week 9 loss to Dadeville threw Handley all the way back to fourth and a horrible draw to face UMS-Wright in Mobile. Handley put in a good effort, but it wasn’t enough in the 20-8 loss to the Bulldogs. What’s worse is Handley was seemingly snubbed of an All-State player, not even an honorable mention. Mikeia Trammell deserved better than that. As for 2016, Handley has high hopes and good prospects. They’ll have to play a little better on defense in region play even though they were second behind Leeds in defensive points per game. An average of 20.2 points on defense with your offense averaging 31.2 will get you to the playoffs, but not deep.
Tallassee: It could be time for Dadeville’s eight-year playoff streak to come to an end, and Tallassee is the reason why. These two have split their last four non-region match-ups, including Tallassee winning last year’s 28-22 battle while in a down year. Mike Battles, Jr. hasn’t quite gotten the Tigers to the level he got Bibb County, but something has to give. Tallassee is coming down from a 5A Region 3 that had Beauregard, Central Clay County, and Sylacauga. Not the easiest bunch to handle, especially after they lost 2014 5A Back of the Year Brandon Baynes. A year to heal and a drop in classification should be just what the doctor ordered for the Tigers. But until we see, they go to the darkhorse spot. Tallassee will be testing themselves with non-region match-ups against W.S. Neal and T.R. Miller and will get Munford and Handley at home. Things could line up very well for Tallassee when they head to Leeds on October 14th.
Dadeville: The Tigers of Dadeville will be in the running for the playoffs, but with the loss of Second-Team All-State members Tre Marbury (LB) and Ty Stone (WR), it seems highly unlikely Dadeville will make a run to a region title. They’re talented enough to do it, but the addition of Leeds and Munford has seemingly had an adverse effect on Dadeville, a program that had at least 10 wins each season from 2008 to 2013.
Elmore County: After Week 3’s stunning win over Munford, things looked to be heading upward for Elmore County. But just as quickly, Leeds brought the Panthers brought back down to Earth. Elmore County went on to lose to Handley and Dadeville to nullify their upset win and kept them just on the outside looking in. It won’t get any easier for the Panthers with Tallassee joining the fray. Norman Dean needs to see great improvement in a short time.
Childersburg: The fourth set of Tigers in this region took a big nosedive in Adam Fossett’s fourth season, missing the playoffs with a dismal 2-8 record. Fossett decided to take the head coach job at Smiths Station in 7A. The Tigers hired Holt’s Jonathan Beverly after just one season with the Ironmen in which they went 2-8. That’s not promising on the surface. Time will tell if Beverly was a smart choice.
Holtville: This is simple. Holtville just isn’t good enough. Not for a region title. Not even for a playoff spot. The Bulldogs have gone 5-45 in the last five years while having lost their last 20 straight.
|#||Aaron Daniel||Jon Lunceford|
|6||Elmore County||Elmore County|
Bibb County: Mike Battles Jr.’s old stomping grounds started anew with Matt Geohagen coming in to Centerville in 2015 after Mike McCombs’ three years followed Battles. Geohagen’s first season was successful with a 6-0 region record and a title over Montevallo. The Choctaws will lost Second-Team lineman Eugene Bowden and athlete Markise Leverette, which could make things a little more difficult. Couple that with newcomer Greensboro to replace Montevallo and going back-to-back seems like too high a mountain to climb. The region as a whole is not strong, but the top teams are pretty even amongst each other. That said lack of region strength was most apparent by Bibb’s loss in the first round last year to Straughn.
Northside: The Rams lost a step from 2014 to 2015 with the loss of running back AJ Travis, but linebacker Preston Malone was a bright spot in a decent 7-3 season with a tough first round road loss to Trinity. Northside’s defense was brilliant last year, averaging 11.5 points given up a game through the year and four shutouts. But their offense couldn’t match the output needed in critical games, their two region losses coming to Bibb County and Montevallo. Yes, defensive coordinator Darrin Hughes will replace Chris Hilliker, but Hughes was the assistant head coach for a team that consistently made the playoffs. It’s likely the players will respond to one of their own more enthusiastically than a new regime, so the Rams should be set up with a chance to win their first region title since 1991.
Greensboro: The Raiders haven’t won a region title since 1999, but Greensboro has made the playoffs six of the last seven years. There’s got to be a breakthrough at some point. Greensboro gets a fresh start with a jump in class back to 4A. Richard Bevill has had two average seasons, but they’ve had to deal with the likes of Gordo, American Christian, and Aliceville. There’s some promise still making the playoffs with that opposition. It also helps that the Raiders have some meat in their non-region schedule with quarterfinalists Minor (6A) and Demopolis (5A) to start before they enter region play with Bibb County and West Blocton. It looks apparent Greensboro wants to build a strong-minded unit.
West Blocton: The Tigers replace 12-year coach Gregg Farnetti with assistant Eric Hiott. But if things stay status quo, West Blocton will be a team that makes the playoffs, but doesn’t win region titles but once in a blue moon. Don’t get us wrong, Farnetti should be commended for the job he did after a nine-year period of West Blocton being a basement dweller. But there’s nothing special to be expected from the Tigers in the near future.
Oak Grove: Oak Grove has had it rough the last eleven seasons, making only three playoffs and only being in the running for a region title once. With only five region titles in school history, the Tigers are pressed for results. Tom Hannah only won two region games in each of his four seasons and made no playoff appearances. It won’t be easy this season with road trips to Bibb County and Northside. With Hannah’s retirement and a new head coach, it won’t make this season’s prospects any easier.
Hale County: Joe Nettles improved the Wildcats by three wins in his only season in Moundville. However, Nettles headed for Sumter Academy in AISA after 2015 and the ‘Cats are still looking for who to take over as far as we’ve been able to find. With no known coach in place, it’s tough to say Hale County will be able to compete in the region, even for the playoffs.
Sipsey Valley: The Bears are such a young program that there’s no need for any kind of expectations. Antonio Ford is still building and this is only Sipsey’s third year in 4A. Still, the Bears would like to at least get to the postseason like they did in 2014.
Holt: The Ironmen got the raw end of the deal with Jonathan Beverly bolting for Childersburg. Holt still appears to be looking for a coach, and that’s just adding insult to injury. No chance for the Ironmen to even make the playoffs.
|#||Aaron Daniel||Jon Lunceford|
|2||Bibb County||Bibb County|
|5||Oak Grove||West Blocton|
|6||Sipsey Valley||Sipsey Valley|
|7||Hale County||Hale County||8||Holt||Holt|
Aaron: UMS-Wright def. Munford
Jon: UMS-Wright def. Munford
We’ll preview the northern half of Class 4A next week and give our Super 7 predictions then.