August 28, 2011

Alabama misses its big chance

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

HOOVER, Ala. - High school football from the state of Alabama was on display for all to see Saturday, highlighted by an intersectional doubleheader on national TV that featured four teams ranked in the RivalsHigh Top 100.

And while the state - specifically Hoover (Ala.) High - proved once again that it can put on a great show, the action on the field showed the state's talent level is decidedly average.

Simply put, this does not appear to be the year Alabama solidifies itself as a top-ten state in the nation.

Consider:

  • Prattville, the No. 1 team in the RivalsHigh rankings, saw its dreams of a national title squashed in a series of missteps and penalties during a 34-31 loss to No. 9 Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.

  • No. 73 Hoover showed a lot of muscle by beating No. 10 Batesville (Miss.) South Panola, 24-13. But most came away from the game remarking on how far the defending national champs have fallen more than a showing of a rising stock for Hoover.

  • And Hoover (Ala.) Spain Park, which some felt was ready to challenge its neighbor for supremacy in the town for the first time in more than a decade, needed to rally - and then hold on - to defeat Macon (Miss.) Noxubee County, 24-20.

    The state, long known for its recruits more than its teams, has been improving steadily, jumping from No. 23 overall in 2009 to No. 13 last season in the RivalsHigh state rankings. But it isn't quite ready to make the next step.

    And its top coaches and players know it.

    "We made too many mistakes against a good team," Prattville head coach Jamey DuBose said.

    Caleb Sims, a senior wide receiver on Hoover, left the field disappointed. And his team triumphed.

    "We didn't accomplish much today," he said. "I mean I am glad we won, I am happy, but I know we have to get better if we want to accomplish our goals."

    That seemed to be the theme throughout.

    Prattville - still looking for the big out-of-state victory that separates the national contenders from the pretenders - did too many things wrong against a program used to coming up big in big games.

    "Looking back, we could have done some things differently, but that is the way it goes when you lose," Dubose said.

    He is right.

    The team had multiple personal foul penalties. It had a costly interception that produced the game-winning score. And it failed when it went for it on a 4th-and-3 in the final minutes when it could have attempted a game-tying field goal - with the wind.

    Most of all, it seemed to lack an identity. Its two-quarterback system was seemingly called into question by its biggest supporters.

    "They have one quarterback (Justin Thomas) who can run but insists on throwing and they have another (Jalen Whitlow) who can throw but insists on running," one fan noted.

    He is right.

    Prattville figures to remain in the Top 10, a spot Hoover held for much of last season.

    Hoover showed the heart of a champion, winning a game they would have lost on the eyeball test. South Panola appeared to have the better athletes, but its inexperienced junior-filled team is not ready for the national spotlight.

    Hoover head coach Josh Niblett isn't concerned about that though.

    "We can't worry about what other people think of us," he said. "We need to have the right attitude, the right character, the right work ethic and we will come out ahead."

    But Hoover needed every bit of every play to triumph. And needs to get better moving forward.

    "We had a good game plan that worked well against them but we have a lot of work to do," Sims said. "We didn't finish drives; we didn't play a clean game at all."

    He is right.

    Hoover was effective but not spectacular on offense. And while its defense pinned in South Panola, that wasn't a daunting task on this day. South Panola looked like a one-dimensional opponent that wouldn't have stayed on the field with many teams.

    Spain Park, meanwhile, struggled to show it deserved to be on the field with its Mississippi opponent.

    Trailing 20-14 at halftime, Spain Park rallied behind ailing quarterback Nick Mullens to take the lead, then needed an end-zone interception from Devon Brown with 21 seconds left to secure the win at the end of a long day and night of football.

    The school may challenge for a state title - Spain Park seemingly always does. But it is not ready to challenge for a spot in the Top 100.

    Spain Park's rally salvaged the day for the state, giving it a 2-1 mark in its biggest games, but Alabama lost out on the chance to make a national statement.

    The biggest winner may have been the Hoover administration.

    The school, which hosts the top 7-on-7 tournament of the summer, was more than able to handle demands of a national doubleheader on ESPN as the event went off without a hitch.

    "It was a great event and a great day," Myra Miles, the athletic director at Hoover, said.

    She is right.

    The weather peaked in the mid-90s. It was breezy, not too humid - and not at all a hurricane. It was a great day. But it wasn't what it could have been.

    Hoover quarterback Sam Gillikin may have summed it up best. He was talking about his school, but he may as well have been talking about the state.

    "People are doubting us and they probably still are because they do every year," he said. "We need to shut them out and focus on us."

    That sounds about right.



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