CCC football teams make history in march to quarterfinals

Capital City Conference coaches (from left) Granger Shook of Trinity, Robert Johnson of Montgomery Academy, Aubrey Blackwell of Catholic and Nate Sanford of Alabama Christian Academy pose for a picture at the Alabama High School Athletic Association quarterfinal playoff meeting on Saturday morning.

There have been standard bearers, the Stanhope Elmores and the Trinitys of the world that have been a constant presence in the Alabama High School Athletic Association football state playoffs.

There have been teams that had a dominant era of playoff football, such as Robert E. Lee, Billingsley and Prattville.

But it’s a bit unusual to have four teams from the tri-county area advance to the quarterfinals in their respective classifications in the same year. Never have those four teams come from the same conference.

In 4A, Alabama Christian will be playing host to American Christian, while in 3A, Trinity will be visiting Montgomery Academy and Catholic will be traveling to Thomasville.

The Capital City Conference has had two teams in the quarterfinals in 1989, 2002, 2003 and 2006, but never have four teams – Alabama Christian, Catholic, Trinity and Montgomery Academy – reached this stage of the football playoffs all at the same time.

“It’s pretty wild,” first-year Trinity coach Granger Shook said. “My senior year, we actually played St. James twice. We ended up playing St. James at Trinity in the quarterfinals, but it was only us and them. That’s the last time (2003) I can recall two Capital City teams playing each other in the quarters, but there’s never been four playing at the same time. It’s really special for this community. To have four in close proximity playing is surreal.”

Each is making their own historic run. Alabama Christian won a region title for the first time since regions were adopted in 2000 and the Eagles are making their fifth consecutive playoff appearance, tying the school mark set in 1988-92.

“There was definitely a point where I said, ‘Who was the idiot who scheduled Trinity and MA for our non-region games?’” ACA coach Nate Sanford said. “You don’t actually know how to get better until you play a team that shows you those things. And that’s what it takes. We learned some things in Week One (against Trinity) and we learned some things in Week 10 (against MA) and we are still using those things now.

“Against Trinity, we had too many guys going both ways. We thought we would be able to rely on that this year and now we only have one full-time person going both ways and that’s (lineman) Will Wright. Every time we play Trinity, we come away thinking we need to swarm the ball better, we need to tackle better, because it seems as if every guy on their defense weighs 175 pounds but there’s 14 of them. That’s a culture they’ve cultivated over how ever many years (defensive coordinator) Coach ‘Sham’ (Jon Shamburger) has been there.

“Against MA, it was reiterated to us that it is our own mistakes that are the enemy, not the other team.”

Catholic is making consecutive trips to the quarterfinals for the first time in school history. The Knights set a school record for wins (12) last year and for a team that just earned the school’s fifth 10-win season, winning 22 games in two years is easily the best stretch in school history.

“I think everybody has improved,” Catholic coach Aubrey Blackwell said. “There is also good senior leadership on these teams. You think about the (Thomas) Kirkham kid at MA and the (Walton) Cherry kid at Trinity and Jalen Clark at ACA. All those kids have played multiple years – Myles Butler, DJ Carter for me and Marcus Dees have been four-year starters for us. All of them are kids that have been playing since they were ninth graders and I think our programs are seeing the reward of experience-heavy classes.

“I think going into it there was a lot of excitement because, number one, we were getting to play. But, number two, we all had guys with experience getting ready to come into it.”

Montgomery Academy made its eighth consecutive trip to the state playoffs, a school record, and its 10th trip to the quarterfinals. The Eagles’ fourth 12-win season is the best ever for a first-year coach at the school.

“We all knew Catholic was going to be good with all their D-I athletes and we heard about how good Trinity was going to be early,” MA coach Robert Johnson said. “ACA just kept building all year. They’ve got some really good-looking kids and their quarterback is out of sight. You could tell it was coming.”

Johnson is the dean of CCC coaches despite coaching at Montgomery Academy for one year. In addition to his career as an MA lineman (1985-87) and an assistant at MA (1991-94) and coordinator at St. James (1995-96), he also served as head coach of the Trojans from 1997-2006, giving him 20 years in the conference.

And while Trinity didn’t set any school records with Granger Shook’s first year as the head coach, the Wildcats are making their 11th trip to the quarterfinals but first since 2010. It is also Trinity’s first 10-win season since 2010 (and 11th overall).

“We had a feeling ACA was really good and coming out and playing them as hard as we did and with MA being one of the biggest teams in the state and the skill guys to match it, I had a feeling those teams were pretty good,” Shook said. “I think we’re all doing a good job of getting our teams to hit their stride at the right time.”

St. James, the fifth team in the Capital City Conference, didn’t make it past the first round, the Trojans were part of history as well as all five CCC teams hosted a first-round playoff game for the first time.

As Blackwell noted, part of the reason for the postseason accomplishments of the CCC teams is the alignment of two teams in 4A and the remaining three teams in two different 3A regions. Had the three 3A teams been in the same region, only two could have hosted first-round games and it’s unlikely all three could have reached this point.

Had four been in the same classification – St. James was originally listed as a 3A program because of a clerical error, but the Trojans are only a few students away from being in 3A – it’s a good bet that not all of them would have made the playoffs.

“We all got favorable draws with our regions,” Blackwell observed. “It set up well with us for travel and our teams. But being spread out, it all changes if MA is in the same region with us (Trinity and Catholic). If St. James had 10 or 11 less kids, they’re in our region, too.

“We’d love to be together in the same region because our travel is down and we’re all going to play, but being spread out sets us up for opportunities like we’re getting ready to play. Here we are, an opportunity to showcase what Montgomery can really do and looking forward to good football the next couple of weeks.”

No other tri-county teams reached the AHSAA quarterfinals, but on six occasions at least five teams made quarterfinal appearances in the same year, most recently in 2006 when Montgomery Academy, Trinity, Elmore County, Prattville and Sidney Lanier all reached the quarterfinals.

Five area teams also reached the quarterfinals in 1989, 1990, 1996, 2002 and 2004. In 1995, six teams from the area reached the quarterfinals – Autaugaville, Billingsley, Wetumpka, Stanhope Elmore, Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis.