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To most, Parker High was an afterthought when glancing at the Class 6A football playoff brackets.
Sure, they had some talent. Parker head coach Frank Warren believes that Khalifa Keith, a former University of Kentucky commit who reopened his recruitment this week, is the best running back in the state. The remainder of the roster is sprinkled with players destined to play at the next level. Warren estimates he has at least five future SEC players on the roster.
However, the pairings told us that the Thundering Herd was 6-4 overall, 3-3 in region play and the No. 4 representative from Region 5. Those same pairings told us that Clay-Chalkville was 8-1 overall, 6-0 in region play and the No. 1 representative from Region 6.
What the pairings didn’t say was Clay-Chalkville is the defending Class 6A champion, the lone loss was by three points to three-time defending Class 7A champion Thompson and the Cougars had outscored their opponents, 371-76.
The odds were against Parker.
“I felt good about it,” Warren said.
The next question is simple.
“This season has been a grind, it’s been a kind of storybook season,” Warren said. “I told our players it’s been a movie type of year.”
For Warren, it’s been an extremely emotional year. Just before the second game of the year, a 34-18 win over Ramsay, he lost his brother, Timothy, in a car accident.
“That was hard, still is,” Warren said. “There was so much going on, the kids really kept me going and motivated.”
On the field, the Thundering Herd was banged up and less than full strength pretty much the entire year. Keith missed some games. Quarterback Malik Muhammad was hurt against Ramsay and didn’t return until last Friday. The Thundering Herd had other injuries.
The Thundering Herd lost to Jackson-Olin a week after beating Ramsay, dropped back-to-back games to Gardendale and Pleasant Grove and lost to Mountain Brook.
Still, they entered Friday’s game against Clay-Chalkville with confidence and good health.
“Coming in, playing the defending champions, it’s better to get them earlier, rather than later,” Warren said. “That was our mindset. We believed it, coaches to the players. We knew they were a great team. They looked good on film, they didn’t have any weakness. We knew we could do it.”
“We played the game of our lives,” Warren said.
It was far from perfect, but with this team and this season that should be expected. A team that had to grind its way through the season found a way to grind its way to a 7-6 victory over Clay-Chalkville.
A Cougar team that averaged 40 points per game and put up over 50 points four times, including a season-high 62, managed just a second quarter touchdown pass.
“Our defense played lights out,” Warren said. “We had the potential all year, we felt, to play with anybody. Doing what we did against a team like Clay, which was explosive offensively, was big for us.”
The winning points came on a 50-yard pass from Muhammad to Carl Pitts and the ensuing extra points with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter.
When it was over, the celebration began.
“Man, it was awesome,” Warren said. “For us to take a knee at the end of the game and hear the crowd behind us. The kids were excited. They weren’t shocked, that was the best part about it. They knew they could do it. What we told them all week came true. We celebrated for like 24 hours and it was back to the grind. We’re trying to have this feeling this week.”
This team is playoff tested. A year ago, playing in Class 5A, the Thundering Herd beat Boaz and Alexandria before dropping a 44-27 decision to Fairview. His team finished 11-2, which was the second most wins in school history, trailing the 12-win state finalist team in 1980. It wasn’t enough.
“We grew a lot from last year,” Warren said. “Last year, we didn’t finish. Our motto all this year has been ‘Finish.’ I felt we should have been farther than the third round. This year, right here, we’ve been motivated by finishing. Things didn’t go our way all the time this year, we had a lot of adversity.”
They’ve turned that adversity around and now play at home on Friday night in the second round against Muscle Shoals. The Trojans put up 58 points in a first-round win over Hazel Green and their only loss this season was a three-point setback to unbeaten Hartselle.
Once again, on paper, the odds are against Parker.
“We got a tough team coming in here,” said Warren. “[Last week] shows, if put your best foot forward, stay together as a program, we can play with anybody in the state. It’s a great boost for our kids.”
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