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The start of the AHSAA playoffs signifies the beginning of the second season. It takes five victories to hoist a blue map but the championship run must begin with a first-round win. We take a look at one game from each of the seven classifications.

CLASS 7A

Vestavia Hills (6-4, Region 3 #4) at Austin (7-3, Region 4 #1): Austin had a peculiar season. The Black Bears lost to Class 6 playoff teams Hartselle, which is 10-0, and Decatur to start the season. Austin then won seven games in a row before losing to Huntsville in the final week of the season. They head into the playoffs as a region champion but haven’t been good in the postseason since moving to Class 7A in 2018. The Black Bears haven’t won a Class 7A playoff game, even in 2018 when they shared a region title or 2020 when they were outright region champs.

First-year Vestavia Hills coach Robert Evans has the Rebels back in the playoffs for the first time since 2019. It’s only the second time the Rebels have been in the playoffs since Class 7A was formed in 2014. The Rebels ramped up the offensive production this season, scoring 347 points, which was the most they’ve scored in a season since back-to-back seasons of more than 400 points in 2012 and 2013. Quarterback John Paul Head is a threat in the passing and running game.

CLASS 6A

Benjamin Russell (8-2, Region 3 #3) at Hueytown (7-3, Region 4 #2): Hueytown played in the Class 6A championship game a year ago, losing to Clay-Chalkville, 46-42. A repeat of that game is unlikely for a team that has no trouble scoring points. The Golden Gophers scored 457 points overall with games of 75, 68, 67 and 59 points. In their two losses, Hueytown had 44 and 28 points. Quarterback Earl Woods, a Jacksonville State commit, was the Class 6A Back of the Year last year. They have won six consecutive games after a 55-44 loss to Region 4 champion Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa.

Benjamin Russell is led by dual threat junior quarterback Gabriel Benton and wide receiver Corri Milliner. The Wildcats have outscored opponents, 346-151, with both losses coming in region play. The Wildcats missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

CLASS 5A

Faith Academy Rams (8-2, Region 1 #3) at Eufala Tigers (7-2, Region 2 #2): Eufala’s Jerrell Jernigan is in his first season as head coach at his alma mater. The former Troy and NFL wide receiver spent several seasons as an assistant coach at Eufala. As a player, he was an all-state quarterback on a team that played in the 2006 state championship game. The Tigers have been in the playoffs every season since 1998 but have not advanced past the second round since that 2006 team. This season’s losses were to Pike Road and Charles Henderson.

Faith Academy’s Jack French is 303-135-2 in 39 seasons as a head coach in Alabama and Mississippi. He is 44-15 at Faith Academy and has directed his team to the quarterfinals and semifinals in past seasons. The Rams narrowly missed having a shot at sharing the region title with losses to No. 1 ranked UMS-Wright (21-20) and Gulf Shores (22-12).

CLASS 4A

Jackson (8-2, Region 1 #3) at Andalusia (9-1, Region 2 #2): Two teams that lost in last season’s Class 4A semifinals get together in the first round.

Andalusia has one of the state’s top running backs in 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior J’Marion Burnette. The No. 5 ranked Bulldogs also have 6-foot-3, 310-pound offensive lineman Brody Stewart, who was selected to play in the North-South All-Star Game. The Bulldogs outscored their opponents, 451-150, this season with the lone loss coming in the regular season finale to unbeaten Montgomery Catholic. Head coach Trent Taylor is 262-146 in his 35 seasons as a head coach and 79-25 at Andalusia. Five of his eight Andalusia teams played in the playoff semifinals.

Jackson is also playoff tested. This is the program’s 15th consecutive postseason trip. Last year, the Aggies lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Vigor. The No. 8 ranked Aggies lost region games to Orange Beach and T.R. Miller early this season and won seven games in a row afterward.

CLASS 3A

Mobile Christian (3-7, Region 4 #4) at Houston Academy (10-0, Region 2 #1):

Houston Academy completed an unbeaten regular season for the first time since going 10-0 in 2005 and 2006. The Raiders preserved this unbeaten season by beating Pike County in a game that included a 99-yard return after a fumble recovery in the second half by Rod Jackson. The Raiders outscored their opponents, 402-83, this season and the defense had four shutouts. Houston Academy has not won a playoff game since 2010.

Don’t pay attention to Mobile Christian’s record. The Leopards had to forfeit four games and lost two games in overtime. They beat all three teams that finished ahead of them in region play – Excel, Thomasville and W.S. Neal – on the field. The Leopards had to forfeit the wins over Excel and W.S. Neal. Former University of Alabama assistant coach Ronnie Cottrell is in his seventh season at Mobile Christian

CLASS 2A

Isabella (8-2, Region 4 #3) at Highland Home (9-1, Region 3 #2): The only Class 2A first round game between two ranked teams. Highland Home is No. 5 and Isabella is No. 10.

Highland Home won its first nine games of the season before dropping an 8-7 decision to Reeltown in the game that decided the region championship. The Flying Squadron has dominated most of their opponents but did have a 28-27 win over Class 1A No. 2 ranked Brantley. Jacksonville State commit Kendarrius Stadium was selected to play in the North-South All-Star Game. Defensive lineman Keldric Faulk is a Florida State commit. The Flying Squadron advanced to the Class 2A semifinals last year before falling to Clarke County.

Isabella is 4-0 against Highland Home, including a 24-18 overtime win last season in a game that ultimately determined a region championship. Both of the Mustang losses this season came in region play against state ranked teams No. 6 B.B. Comer and No. 7 Vincent. Isabella coach Tate Leonard became the school’s all-time leader in football coaching wins earlier this season. Leonard, who is in his seventh season, is 66-17 at the school. 

CLASS 1A

Verbena (8-2, Region 4 #3 seed) at Sweet Water (6-2, Region 3 #2 seed): Sweet Water is the defending Class 1A champion, beating Wadley, 40-16, in last season’s title game. This is the program’s 22nd consecutive postseason trip and the Bulldogs lost in the first round just two of those seasons. The Bulldogs’ two losses this season came to Class 1A No. 3 Linden and Class 3A Thomasville.

Verbena is not playoff tested in recent history. The Red Devils are making their first playoff appearance since 2016. From 2017 to 2021, the program compiled an overall mark of 9-39. Head coach Allen Brothers, who is in his second season at the school, turned things around this season. The only losses came in region play to Loachapoka and Maplesville.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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