Tuscaloosa Academy’s first AHSAA football season comes complete with at least 10 wins, a pair of come-from-behind playoff wins, including one that ended with a game-winning 51-yard field goal, and a quarterfinal date with perhaps the most consistent team in Alabama high school football.

It certainly hasn’t been boring.

“I didn’t know if we’d have success this year,” said Tuscaloosa Academy head coach Josh Wright. “I knew nothing, really, about who we were playing. Everything was kind of blind. It’s just hard to gauge.”

Tuscaloosa Academy spent 43 seasons in the Alabama Independent School Association (AISA). The Knights won a state championship in 2012 and played in the championship game twice, including last season. The decision was made to move into the AHSAA, beginning this school year.

The reasons for the move were multi-layered. Some opposing schools had closed, making scheduling tougher, and travel was taking its toll. Wright said his football team had four games that were more than three hours away last season. Local private schools, like American Christian and Holy Spirit, were in the AHSAA, which meant Tuscaloosa Academy couldn’t schedule them as an AISA member.

“The big thing, make the transition now, you don’t want to jump ship after it’s already sunk,” said Wright, who was 131-37 with four state championships in 13 seasons at Bessemer Academy before moving to Tuscaloosa Academy last year.

The Knights were placed in Class 2A and joined Region 5. They opened the season with a win over Holy Spirit before back-to-back losses to American Christian and Aliceville.

“We played ACA in the second game, who is always a 4A power,” Wright said. “We were kind of starstruck. We were down 28-0 in the first quarter, we had five turnovers. After that, we stayed with them for three quarters. They didn’t sub, we competed with them. Aliceville, we should have been up on them, 21-13. We had the ball inside the 1, jumped offsides and fumbled again. It was 14-13 at half. Then we woke them up. Our kids competed (in the 41-20 loss). I think that Aliceville game showed them that, ‘Hey, we can compete.’ We moved the ball on them.”

The Knights won the last seven games of the season. In the first round of the playoffs, they threw a pair of pick-six interceptions and were down 21-7 in the first half but ended up with a 42-28 win over Locust Fork.

Last week, Tuscaloosa Academy was down to Lexington 20-13 in the fourth quarter before tying the game with about five minutes left. Lexington declined to punt on 4th-and-12 with just under a minute left and the Knights got a sack. They were near midfield but inside Lexington territory. Four quick sideline passes burned up all but one second on the clock.

“We had 4.9 seconds left and threw (the last) quick out,” Wright said. “I’m glad the AHSAA had their clock keepers up there and not Lexington’s. I saw him get out of bounds with 1.1 seconds. You don’t have instant replay or nothing. I know their coaches were upset, I probably would have been too.”

Wright trotted Patton Turnipseed out for the 51-yard attempt. Turnipseed, a 6-foot, 160-pound senior, kicked some 47 and 48-yard field goals in warmups and has gone as long as 50 yards before the game. This was different, though.

“I said alright, go kick it,” Wright said. “I had the three timeouts, but I said, ‘You know what, I ain’t messing this up, just go out there and kick it.’ I didn’t give him time to think about it.”

Wright did have time, though, to think about a worse-case scenario. He looked toward the end zone and saw Lexington had running back Wyatt Prado standing at the goal line. Remember, he lives in Tuscaloosa, so you can probably guess what he was thinking.   

“They had No. 7 back there and I kept thinking, ‘Kick Six, if we don’t hit it good,’” Wright said. “I knew if he hit it good, he had the leg. But the field was kind of damp. He hit it perfect and it was right down the middle. It would have been good from 60. Everybody was just kind of in awe. He’s great kid, leader of our FCA and stuff like that. It couldn’t happen to a more humble kid.”

Now the Knights move on to Friday’s quarterfinal game at Fyffe.

Before we get to the opponent, Wright believes in his team. Sophomore quarterback Preston Lancaster has thrown for more than 2,000 yards this season and led the team to the AISA championship game as a freshman. Receiver Luke Kilgore and tailback/safety Sherabiah Jones are playmakers. Jackson Cooper, a 6-foot-3, 335-pound sophomore two-way lineman, is a future Division I recruit with an offer from Samford already. Leon Sadler helped turn the defense into a salty group after moving to linebacker.

But Fyffe is Fyffe. The Red Devils won state titles in three of the past four seasons. Head coach Paul Benefield is 289-44 in 26 seasons at the school. This season, the Red Devils outscored their first 11 opponents, 579-73.

“We haven’t played anybody like Fyffe,” Wright said. “That’s just a given. We’re not stupid. They’re No. 1 for a reason. I think they’d be the best 3A team, too. I really do. They are a machine. It’s an honor to go play them. We’re actually getting to go up there. Coach Benefield is such a class act and does such a phenomenal job, it’s just a great opportunity for us. We’re going to go up there, give it our best shot and it will be a good measuring stick to see where our program needs to be.”

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

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