“Blackwell’s Army” fought until the final play of the Alabama All-Stars Sports Week football game but came up on the short end of a 27-14 score at Cramton Bowl on Thursday night.
The North, in posting their fourth consecutive win, ran the clock down to eight seconds before turning the ball over on downs deep in South territory, then picked up a loose ball for a touchdown on the final play of the game after a series of laterals among South players trying to pull out an improbable victory.
It was an interesting football game, particularly when you consider South head coach Aubrey Blackwell and his staff virtually built a football squad from scratch after all the original selections elected not to play in the game.
“We had to pick up 28 players,” the Catholic coach said. “I’d hate to see that cellphone bill and see how many hours I spent on that thing. But we had a great group of kids. Everybody we have is excited to get to play again. Some of them are getting a chance to play again (in college), but for some of them this is it. This is their last chance to put on pads and that’s what made it special and fun.”
Having defections on an all-star football game, especially one that includes graduated seniors, is a recurring theme but the 2018 edition sets a new standard for replacement players. Rather than name all the replacements, it’s easier to name the original cast — Goshen quarterback Brock Snyder, Benjamin Russell tailback Davede Herron, Sweet Water linebacker Shamar Lewis, Fairhope kicker Cole Deeds, Daphne linebacker Ty Reynolds and Bibb County offensive lineman Lawson Darden.
Of the five original players named from MPS schools, none participated in the contest, forcing Blackwell and his staff to get three players from Greenville, four from Jeff Davis, three from Central-Hayneville and two from Daphne in addition to Reynolds.
“We’re going to evaluate the all-star football game,” Alabama High School Athletic Association executive director Steve Savarese said. “Right now, our plans are to keep it. That would be a (Central) Board decision, if we ever made any changes, but the (Alabama High School) Athletic Directors and Coaches Association are going to meet with the football committee. They had some discussion about it this morning (before the game). For these kids that are playing, it’s really important and they really have a good time.
“I went down before the game and I was talking with the kids and the coaches and the first words out of a coach’s mouth was, ‘Don’t stop this game. These kids love it.’ Randy White, the administrator for the game, said it was the best group of kids we’ve ever had. They’re so appreciative to have the opportunity to play.
“Every year, whether it’s the Alabama-Mississippi all-star game or this one, you’re always going to have replacements. I’d rather focus on the 90 percent that are going to show up that are really excited about playing.”
That would include Catholic’s William Hooper, who played both H-back on offense and linebacker on defense after getting an invitation from his coach.
“We were all at the lake and Coach Blackwell ended up calling me and said, ‘Hoop, would you like to play in the all-star game?’ and I said, ‘Coach, I would love to do that,’” said Hooper, who plans to walk on at Troy. “I started working out, hitting the weight room every single day and that helped so much out here, just grinding every day.
“The experience was great. I met new guys. I didn’t think I would make friends that easily and it was just awesome. It felt like my brothers. At Catholic, it was so much like brothers over there and I felt like I made brothers over here. That’s what football does.”
Blackwell said the experience was invaluable for Hooper and others who played in the all-star game.
“Especially in a game like this when you have (Class) 6A and 7A players, it helps,” Blackwell said. “It helps them see another game and a game with a little faster speed. That kid had worked his tail off every since the day he walked in my door and he deserved that opportunity. Hopefully, a game like this will give him a chance to see he can play at that level or it’s another unbelievable chance for him to play in the lights one more time for a kid who gave everything – everything – to the game.”
By grabbing Steven Yergensen and Houston Hamilton from St. James, Hooper from Catholic and David Coulter and Ty Taveras from Alabama Christian, Blackwell not only found players who were eager to participate, he found two-way stars he could plug into lineups as the South staff found themselves more concerned with numbers than positions.
“This was an interesting time because when we checked in on Sunday we only had five offensive linemen and we had two defensive linemen,” Blackwell said. “We had Coulter to play D-line but he was going to play some (offensive) guard, too. Ty, I got to call him on Sunday, which I was so excited to do. I talked to him two weeks ago and told him if anybody doesn’t show up, you’re the guy we’ll end up having. Then we had four defensive linemen that didn’t show up. So it was a great opportunity for Ty.
“I knew they could play offense and I knew they could play defense. Same thing with (center) Houston Hamilton. He was a great nose guard for St. James. Having those guys was great when you don’t know what you’re going to get because it wasn’t like I evaluated any of these players. I was going off the word of friends and coaches and guys that I’ve coached against.”
Because many of the players selected have collegiate careers that start in June, it’s likely the Alabama High School Athletic Directors and Coaches Association will have to make changes in the future.
“There are definitely some suggestions (I could make), but the timing is tough,” Blackwell said. “All of kids from the original roster are playing high-level football and those schools make those kids enroll in June. Even at Catholic, we had a couple of kids that wanted to play in the game but they had to enroll in June. (The AHSADCA) is really in a tight spot and they do the best they can.”
Replacement players aren’t a bad thing, Savarese noted. When Wallace Gilberry was selected to play in the 2003 Alabama vs. Mississippi High School All-Star Classic, his future included one junior college offer. After making six tackles and a pair of sacks, he was offered a scholarship to play at Alabama, where he ranks behind only Derrick Thomas in tackles for loss in a game, season and career.
He retired last December after a 10-year career in the National Football League.
“I still remember Wallace Gilberry playing in this game with no scholarship,” Savarese said. “How many years did he play in the NFL?”
Instant Replay debuts at All-Star game
It didn’t have any effect on the outcome of the Alabama All-Stars Sports Week football game, but instant replay made its official debut in the game on Thursday night at Cramton Bowl.
The use of instant replay found its way into the 2017 game as an experiment and was used recently at Jacksonville State University during spring jamborees, but Thursday’s game was the first time replay was employed since it was officially adopted by the Alabama High School Athletic Association in April.
South coach Aubrey Blackwell challenged two plays during the South’s 27-14 loss to the North. He lost both challenges.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to afford that system at Catholic this year, so if I had the chance, I was going to sling it,” Blackwell said. “I wanted to see the thing work.”
Blackwell got an early taste, appealing a decision with just over two minutes remaining in the first quarter. Tallassee quarterback Casey Baynes connected with Central-Hayneville receiver Ma’Lek Hill in front of the North bench but Hill juggled the ball as he fell to the ground and officials ruled the play an incomplete pass, wiping out a 22-yard gain to the North 21. Hill did not have enough yards on the third-down play but a catch would have moved the ball into field goal range for Fairhope’s Cole Deeds.
“It slowed the game down, as expected, especially the one call” later in the game, he said. “But the quality was really clear, there was a definitive answer. Both of those, where we threw the flags, they were very critical and if they were overturned, it would have made a difference in the game.
“So I think it could be a good thing for us. I wish we could afford it and I think that’s something we’re going to work on at Catholic. I think it could be a good thing if we could get the price down to where more schools could get it.”
Blackwell’s third-quarter challenge, like the first one, was not overturned, leaving him winless in his replay challenges as a head coach.
“At least one of the two,” Blackwell said. “I hate going out 0 for 2.”
Alabama High School Athletic Association director of officials Mark Jones remained on the sideline in front of the DVSport replay tent to aid with the replay. Up in the Cramton Bowl press box, Savarese was pleased with the use of replay, which will return to Cramton Bowl in August for Champions’ Challenge before making its debut this fall at high schools that purchased the replay package from DVSport.
“That was exciting,” Savarese said. “Any time you’re in a larger stadium, you have better angles, but hopefully it’ll work in Brantley just like it’ll work in Cramton Bowl.”