E.A. Sports Today

Celebrating excellence

AHSAA officials visit Piedmont, Oxford to formally recognize their 2019 state football titles; for Piedmont, it was Bulldogs’ third in the last five years

Piedmont football coach Steve Smith (C) is embraced by ASHAA executive director Steve Savarese after being presented the Class 3A state championship trophy during ceremonies at the school Friday. Savarese and assistant director Alvin Briggs (R) made a similar presentation to Oxford later in the day.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today
PIEDMONT — Calhoun County is about 30 miles from one end to the other and Steve Savarese counted every last one of them Friday. 
The retiring executive director of the AHSAA was in the county to participate in one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job and went from top to bottom along Alabama 21 to make it happen.
He was recognizing team excellence, in this case state football championships for Piedmont and Oxford in a year an unprecedented three county teams played for state crowns. The only thing that would have added to the trip was recognizing the state volleyball title Donoho won somewhere in between the football ceremonies.
It was, after all, along the way.
“It’s always a privilege to participate in these activities,” Savarese said after the Piedmont presentation, “and to do it in one county with these schools 30 miles apart is amazing.
“I know everyone is proud, great coaching staffs. Both of these communities are successful because of the word ‘community.’ Everybody’s investing in their school and the children are the byproducts of their investment. I really enjoy this part, getting back into our schools. I wish I could do this every day.”
Savarese started his trek at the top end of the county – Piedmont – and he didn’t need directions. It was the third time in the last five years he’s been in this gym helping the Bulldogs raise a football championship banner.
Actually, he has overseen the trophy ceremonies for all four of the Bulldogs’ football titles since 2009, but the trip Friday was to recognize and commemorate their last-minute, 26-24 come-from-behind win over Mobile Christian at Jordan-Hare Stadium in December that was decidedly and admittedly the most unique of their titles.
After a break for lunch Savarese made it to the Oxford Sports Arena in the south end of the county, where the Yellow Jackets were celebrating their first state title since 1993 and their last minute 14-13 win over Spanish Fort. 
Both championship seasons had a similar quality.
The uniqueness of Piedmont’s championship comes from overcoming all the adversity and low outside expectations they faced this year.
The Bulldogs were written off by the so-called experts for any number of factors – the limited number of returning starters on both sides of the ball, an abundance of underclassmen that surely needed seasoning for the Bulldogs to be in the championship conversation again; no better than third or fourth in the region were they predicted to finish. The adversity even carried into the state championship game where the Bulldogs trailed by 10 at halftime and at the start of the fourth quarter and were down by four with just over three minutes to play.
Perhaps the only people who believed in them were the players in the dressing room. All they did was win the region championship and rally in that title game to put an exclamation point on a season for the ages.
“I don’t that special is necessarily a good word to use; I think unique is a better word because every team has its own story,” head coach Steve Smith said. “This one was unique this year in the sense our roster being as young as it was. Having a bunch of guys on this team that don’t drive yet, that don’t shave yet, this team was unique in the sense of just the youthful joy that they had.
“It’s probably one of the more laid-back groups I’ve ever coached. One of their best characteristics was their resiliency of how they just let things roll off their back and not let it affect them. The best example you can give is the second-half effort they gave in the state championship game. They just didn’t panic and just continued to play the next play and everybody did their job and everybody kept believing. Not that I hadn’t had other teams that had those same characteristics, but the moment never got too big for them despite their youth.”

Piedmont Mayor Bill Baker shows the crowd one of the road markers that will appear aat the highway entry points into the city commemorating the Bulldogs’ state football championships.

And a young one did lead them. In the title game, freshman quarterback Jack Hayes led the Bulldogs to four second-half touchdowns, threw the game-winning 27-yard TD pass to Jakari Foster with 35 seconds left and then made the interception that sealed the victory. He was named the game’s MVP.
“I really hadn’t forgotten much from it; I’ve watched the game more than a couple times,” Hayes said. “It’s just unreal still to think of it. How we got written off, how we’re going to be battling for a fourth spot in the playoffs, we just came through that. We pulled together as a team, really.”
Being on the receiving end of the game-winning score was a “very special” moment for Foster, one he said would stay with him the rest of his life.
“It was a game-winner that was thrown to me and that coach wanted to go to me,” he said. “He wanted me to make a big play in that kind of game and I made it for him. I looked at him nad told him I wanted to run something because I had the quarterback guarding me and I told him I’d run by him, just throw it to me and I went up for the ball and got it.
“That whole game coach was mainly on me talking about I needed to do this or that; I just started listening. I told him I’d do everything I could to win this game. I had messed up the first half, but I came back and fixed it.”
There’s a message in the way the Bulldogs won their state championship that Smith plans to use going forward. In much the same vein as ignoring the naysayers or using their words as motivation, Smith will caution his future teams not to take future success for granted just because they overcame so much this past season.
“Sometimes you can create expectations that are difficult to live up to and I think that’s one of the things we’re going to have guard against with this group because everybody since the season ended looked at the roster and said they’ve got so many guys coming back,” Smith said. “I’m going to use that as a flip side story to what actually happened this year when everybody said we wouldn’t be in contention because we didn’t have a lot of guys coming back.
“You can’t really just look at projections and look at a roster and say this is going to happen or that’s going to happen. If we had just done that we’d have been fighting just to make the playoffs this year, instead it was our fifth region championship in a row and the home-field advantage that we’ve had being able to host somebody from our region (in the semifinals) the last 4-5 years has been huge.
“I want our guys to understand it’s just as likely as this year’s team’s success was not based on preseason expectations because of youth, next year’s success won’t be based on everybody coming back. We’ve still got to put in the work and those other teams right now today are getting better all around the state of Alabama that we’re going to have to contend with. If we don’t go out and give our best effort than next year it’ll be somebody else having this celebration.”

A similar story with an Oxford focus will be posted later this evening. In the meantime, you can view a gallery of photos from Oxford trophy assembly at the following link: www.bjfranklin.smugmug.com

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