By Wayne Wood
When we look back on the 2016 Hoover Buc Football state championship season, there are many blessing & memories which should be considered with gratitude.
Back in late February one morning at Hoover High, I walked by the weight room where Coach Josh Niblett was conducting workouts with his P.E. class. I asked him how winter workouts with the football team had gone thus far. Coach Niblett replied that it had been the best workout progress he had seen in all his time at Hoover since he came in 2008. That made me feel good of course. I knew this upcoming senior class had fine leadership & playing potential.
The Bucs had a positive spring practice capped off by an impressive spring game win over Foley (Tad Niblett’s team). The summer work went well also. The schedule challenge of the 2016 season, in my opinion, looked to be the toughest ever and I’ve seen several tough ones.
Opening up in the Champions Challenge at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl vs. Phenix City/Central was the first big task. The Red Devils have always had great athletes as players and a football tradition second to none. The Bucs won 23-7 and I remember telling a couple of seniors that we might end the season playing them again in the state title game. It almost happened but they lost to McGill-Toolen in the state semi-finals.
The next week we traveled via airplane to Dallas, Texas to play the largest high school in the state-the Allen Eagles who have had a great winning tradition the past several years. Having a school more than twice the size of Hoover and an incredible home stadium certainly would leave an impression.
It was a memorable trip for our team.The morning before the game that night we visited the magnificent AT&T Stadium in Arlington and then visited a rival high school of Allen. Their head coach became acquainted with Coach Niblett a few years ago and they invited us to have our walk-through in their gym followed by a Texas BBQ lunch with both teams combined. They were very gracious.
The Allen folks were gracious as well. They provided school buses driven by their people who took us throughout places and believe me those northern Dallas highways & roads were challenging with traffic issues but their their drivers were magnificent.
It was very impressive to see so many of our fans & supporters make the long trip to Dallas accompanied by our band, cheerleaders to support the Bucs. Playing in front of the Allen crowd, our folks were just as loud.
Our Bucs came out strong to lead 7-0 early and later drove down but missed a short field goal. It was a tight game throughout and we were trailing 13-7 late in the 3rd quarter. However, we gave up a safety and Allen scored another TD and a FG to make the score 25-7 (not really indicative of how tight we’d played them).
After the game, I remember trying to console a few seniors. For instance, I recall telling Ricky Palao that there were two priorities to me personally which I wanted to see accomplished this season. First, beat Spain Park decisively and then work ourselves into the state title game hopefully to beat McGill-Toolen (if they made it).
The next week we beat Mountain Brook 19-3 at our Hoover Met home followed by another home game vs. Spain Park. Our Bucs had felt the stings from the previous year in losing twice to the rival Jags (for the first time ever). This year, the Bucs prevented that embarassment again as they won decisively 26-8. We took the win in stride and next week went on the road to defeat Tuscaloosa County 62-7 followed by another road win beating Oak Mountain 49-7.
Next were two home wins over Huffman 38-6 and Vestavia 38-7 followed by a 20-0 road win at Thompson. The Buc defense was playing well indicated by the fact that there were 7 straight game in which each opponent scored less than 10 points each game. Some of those points were late scores against our second team defenders.
The last game of the regular season was against a powerhouse team from Georgia-the Grayson Rams and it was televised on ESPN2 at The Met. Grayson lost their first game to IMG Academy from Florida 26-7. IMG is more like a collection of top recruited players from across the nation rather than a normal high school team.
Of course, Grayson had a large collection of top recruited players themselves having no less than a dozen Division 1 college prospects along with some other recruited players.
The Bucs might have been “out-talented” overall but they weren’t out-fought. We led at one 7-6 and only trailed 12-7 at the half. Trailing 22-14 about mid-way in the 4th quarter, we had some critical punting game miscues setting up Grayson for some easy field position scores as they pulled away to win 36-14. It was another disappointing loss and again I don’t feel the final score was indicative of the tightness of the game throughout but it is what it is. Grayson players did say later that the Buc defense was the best they’d played against.
Next week the “real season” began with the state playoffs. The Bucs opened up at home with a 1st round win over Bob Jones 31-10. The next week James Clemens came to The Met and they appeared to have the best defense we had played against this year. The Bucs survived with a tough 14-7 win.
The next week was a road trip to Gadsden City who had upset Hewitt-Trussville earlier. A lot of people thought we would play Hewitt but that is the nature of playoffs. The score was tied 7-7 at half but the Bucs broke away to win big 42-14 earning a trip to Auburn to play for the state title.
The seniors had been to Auburn as sophomores in 2014 so they knew the process and missing the title game in Tuscaloosa in 2015 only added incentive this year. McGill-Toolen had won the title the year before beating Spain Park. This year they had averaged over 40 points a game in going undefeated and were flying high being ranked in the top teams in the national polls.
However, the Bucs had been through tougher season tests with games vs. Allen & Grayson plus we felt McGill hadn’t yet seen a defense like ours before. Early in the game, McGill moved the ball deep but the Bucs stopped them from scoring. Our offense did just enough against their solid defense to give us a lead of 17-0 well into the 4th quarter before McGill scored a late TD to make the final score 17-7 in favor of the Bucs.
The victory gave our program its 12th state championship in school history breaking a tied record of 11 titles with Hazelwood for an Alabama state high school record. It was our 10th title at Hoover High since 2000.
For me personally, as time passes, I seem to take each title more in stride. However, it is always freshly joyous seeing our Buccaneer kids enjoying their moment of glory. For manym it is the first time ever so that feeling of seeing their excitement will always remain forever.
There are a lot of people behind the coaches & players in making a championship happen. Of course, there are parents & family members offering constant support. The trainers & people who set-up & clean-up are always vital. The cheerleaders are more than super in their support.
The Hoover High School Band adds so much to the atmosphere & sound whether they play the fight song as the team enters the field & playing after scores along with their halftime performance. When they conclude after the game is finished & the teams shake hands with the school alma mater as the kids join arm in arm with each other on the field (win or lose) it has an effect on me emotionally. That seems to increase each year too. The Buccanette girls dance team adds so much to the scene as well.
Our players & coaches are backed by a great athletic department & school administration who are certainly among the best in the nation at what they do. I could go on and on relating those who support the Bucs athletics–whatever the sport in whatever the season.
By the way, Allen went 14-0 before losing in the Texas state playoff semi-finals recently along with being ranked high in the national polls all year. Grayson went on to win their state title with a 23-20 OT win over Roswell. Several Georgia coaches & sportswriters said the two teams probably included more great college prospects collectively by both teams than any title game in Georgia high school history.
I understand that we play Grayson early in the upcoming season of 2017 perhaps the first game. We travel to their place in Georgia (between Atlanta & Athens) for that contest. I am looking forward eagerly for that and believe the coaches & players are too. It is certainly a goal to work forward to along with another state championship. It is a Buc tradition & expectation.
In conclusion, I want to wish all members of the Buccaneer Family Nation (past, present & future) a great Christmas & a Happy New year of 2017. GO BUCS from the Eternal Buccaneer.