As prep football playoffs land in court, Oxford unsure of Friday’s opponent
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Nov 03, 2011 | 8935 views |  0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Oxford coach John Grass, right, talks to his players after Wednesday’s practice for the first round of the state playoffs. Exactly who the Yellow Jackets will play in that game is left up to the courts to decide. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Oxford coach John Grass, right, talks to his players after Wednesday’s practice for the first round of the state playoffs. Exactly who the Yellow Jackets will play in that game is left up to the courts to decide. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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Oxford High School’s football team may or may not be the AHSAA Region 7 champs in Class 6A.

The Yellow Jackets will play a home game against Spain Park in the first week of playoffs Friday. Or they’ll play Vestavia Hills. Or they won’t play at all.

The Alabama Supreme Court will decide.

“Whoever shows up, we’ll be prepared,” Roy Bennett, director of student services for Oxford City Schools, said Wednesday.

At 10:11 a.m. Wednesday, Etowah County District Judge William Clay issued a court order that would seem to make Oxford the No. 1 team in Region 7.

Actually, Oxford was never mentioned in the court document. Judge Clay was ruling in a dispute between Clay-Chalkville High School and Gadsden City High — a dispute that has jostled the standings and has some school officials wondering where their buses will be heading on Friday afternoon.

Clay-Chalkville went undefeated this season, and under normal circumstances, the team would have a 10-0 record. But the AHSAA ruled one of the team’s players ineligible late in the season, invalidating the team’s first nine wins and knocking the No. 1-ranked Cougars out of the playoffs. That action landed Gadsden City the Region 7’s fourth and final playoff spot.

Clay-Chalkville took the matter to Jefferson County Circuit Court, and got an injunction blocking the AHSAA from invalidating the wins — at least, until a hearing on Nov. 10.

Then Gadsden City Schools filed its petition and got exactly the opposite result. Judge Clay’s order bans AHSAA from reversing its decision to boot the Jefferson County school out of the playoffs. That order is effective until the judge can hold a hearing on Nov. 9.

Not knowing which ruling to follow and with playoff matchups scheduled to commence Friday, the AHSAA took the matter to the state’s highest court. The association filed a petition with the Alabama Supreme Court Wednesday asking the justices to vacate both rulings, which would leave Gadsden in the playoffs and Clay-Chalkville on the sidelines.

“I don’t think we’d have any other choice,” said Jim Williams, attorney for the AHSAA. “We have conflicting rulings from two different courts.”

Williams said that without an opinion from the high court, some playoff games would not happen this Friday.

Oxford’s Friday game is one of those affected by the dispute. Before Clay-Chalkville’s troubles, Oxford was in second place in Region 7. With Clay-Chalkville out of the running, the Yellow Jackets are in first place. The legal dispute had the school planning Wednesday morning to play a Friday home game against either Spain Park or Vestavia Hills, depending on which ruling stands up in court.

Bennett of Oxford City Schools said the team is doing its best to prepare for the game — no matter which team it plays.

“We’re going to get ready to play a good game,” he said. “We’re hoping the process will work itself out.”

‘Prepare to be stung’

But at Oxford High School, there seems to be a great deal of confidence that all of this week’s court drama will be reversed, leaving Gadsden in the playoffs and making Spain Park the Friday opponent for Oxford.

Oxford coach John Grass said his team has been studying film of Spain Park. And cheerleaders at the school have made a run-through banner that will make sense only if the Spain Park Jaguars are the opposing team.

“We have a generic banner that says ‘Prepare to be stung,’ ” Oxford student services director Roy Bennett said. “It does have a jaguar on the bottom of it, but that can be changed if it becomes necessary.”

A member of the staff at Spain Park told The Star the school was planning for a game against Clay-Chalkville. But Spain Park athletic director Clay Osborne said the team was preparing for either team — by focusing on the Jaguars’ own game.

“We’re just focusing on ourselves right now,” Osborne said. “We’re trying to play the best we can.”

Osborne said the uncertainty about the game hasn’t affected the school’s preparations. No matter which team they play, the Jaguars will be getting on the bus and traveling to an away game, he said.

“We’re just glad to be in it,” he said. “No matter what happens, we’re playing the No. 1 seed.”

Home team advantage

Asked which team cheerleaders and others are preparing for, Osborne said there was no plan for a pep rally this week. The team has already had five pep rallies this year, he said, and did not plan to hold more unless the team progresses further into playoffs.

Efforts to reach Vestavia Hills High School officials were unsuccessful Wednesday.

No matter the outcome, Oxford officials are convinced they’ve come out better than most of the schools affected by the legal dispute — because they’ll be playing at home regardless.

“That’s huge,” said Grass. “If you’re someone like Austin or Vestavia, you have to play on the road, and that’s a big deal.”

Grass said he’s never seen a playoff situation like this one. But he has seen a team like the one he expects to face Friday. Grass used to coach at Spain Park and said either matchup will be tough. Both Vestavia Hills and Spain Park are in Region 6, a set of teams Grass knows well.

“No matter who you play, it’s going to be a good football team,” he said.

Bennett said no matter what the court decides, the result will be unfair to at least some high school students.

“These young men have worked really hard, and someone’s going to come away disappointed,” he said. “I just hate that this is happening.”

But for the schools litigating the dispute, taking the disappointment without a fight just isn’t an option.

“We felt that we did not have any choice,” said Ralph Strawn, attorney for Gadsden High. “We were in a position where we could be denied a playoff slot, and we needed relief from the court.”

Star sports writer Nick Birdsong contributed reporting for this story.

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