On the one hand, four teams from each region, nearly half of all AHSAA teams, make it.
Then there’s the Jacksonville Christian Academy perspective, one of a school with 50 kids in the top three grades playing 11-man football just since 2002.
The Thunder has a head coach barely a month removed from open-heart surgery who also serves as the school’s principal and athletics director and coaches other sports. Tommy Miller has an all-volunteer staff.
So making that first AHSAA playoff appearance, which JCA (7-3) will do Friday at Marion County (7-3), has put some real clap in the Thunder.
Who can blame them?
“It’s amazing,” senior quarterback Matt Crook said. “God has blessed us so much.”
Miller started the school’s football team 22 years ago, and the Thunder was a championship-level team in eight-man football.
The Thunder has grown from a boxcar dressing room to a weight room, training room and locker room.
Miller has worked with rosters as small as 11 players, including a sixth-grader. The Thunder’s current 23-man roster includes seventh graders.
Miller’s volunteer staff includes his son-in-law, former Jacksonville State University kicker Steven Lee. There’s also Larry Bollinger, the school’s maintenance man and father to former players Andrew and Jacob Bollinger.
Assistant Lee Bridges is a 2000 JCA grad and former player dating back to the eight-man days. Like Miller, he’s also a pastor and has full-time work — as a biomedical engineer for Jacksonville Medical Center.
Bridges has worked it with the hospital to get off work in time for practice each day.
Miller and most of his staff have been together for years and know well the program’s growing pains and obstacles.
Miller stepped aside as head coach in 2005 but wound up retaking the reigns from Chad Goss after an 0-7 start to the season, though Miller said at the time that relieving Goss of his duties had nothing to do with the team’s record.
In reflecting on why he originally stepped aside in 2005, Miller said, “It looked like the Lord to me.
“It wasn’t that I was just ready to get out,” he said. “But, if He is sending somebody in here to take the next step, then OK. That’s fine with me, and I moved out of the way.
“It wound up being premature. It just didn’t work out at all.”
Competition has also been a tough for JCA.
The Thunder has shared regional alignments with the likes of Wadley and Talladega County Central when those programs were at high points in recent years.
However, JCA’s biggest obstacle has been manpower.
Lee, who played for Class 5A Citronelle before going to JSU, said JCA’s situation reminds him of his days playing Arena2 football in Huntsville.
“We only carried about 21 to a game in arena and only had about 25 on a squad,” he said. “There’s some similarities there, playing eight-man ball in arena versus playing 11-man ball with this many kids.”
JCA is a private school, which means the AHSAA counts each student as roughly 1.3. AHSAA.com lists JCA’s average daily enrollment at 63.23, but the school’s true, 1-for-1 numbers would list near the bottom of Class 1A.
Marion County has an average daily enrollment of 97 and a 31-man roster. Defending 1A champion Brantley has 121 students and 41 players, and 1A power Sweet Water goes 147 and 55.
JCA’s numbers make each personnel setback hurt. The Thunder had to retool last year, after former starting quarterback Steven Hurst transferred to Pleasant Valley.
The more routine personnel setbacks are injuries.
“We’re so small that we kind of depend on 11 people to get out there on the field, and one injury really hurts us,” Larry Bollinger said. “A big school, one injury is not that big a deal, but you take one player away, and it’s cost us several years.
“We’ve just been so close and been heartbroken.”
JCA came within a win-and-you’re-in game against Coosa Christian in 2008 — one season removed from a 0-10 nightmare in 2007 — and there have been other close calls.
Larry Bollinger’s sons each came within one victory of the playoffs as seniors.
“This year, just everything seemed to fall into place,” he said.
In a strange way, Miller’s Sept. 15 heart surgery might have played into that.
What was thought to be a routine heart catheter procedure turned into bypass surgery, which happened the week following the Donoho game. Within two weeks of surgery, Miller was on the cell phone calling plays to his coaches from home.
The next week, he came to talk to the team and was in the press box for the Parkway Christian game. He returned to the sideline against Ragland.
“This is part of his healing process,” Lee said. “We talked about that several times with the team while he was out. You can help him feel better by us taking care of business while he’s gone.”
JCA’s players noticed Miller’s efforts to stay as involved as he could.
“He still coached over the phone and stuff,” senior center and defensive end Ward Reid said. “He was with us.”
It all played into an all-in feel as the Thunder played toward the goal of making the school’s first playoff appearance.
“The past few years, we’ve talked about it,” Reid said. “This was the year we really made it our goal.”
JCA clinched its playoff berth with a 35-27 victory over Coosa Christian on Oct. 22 then finished the regular season with a 41-12 victory over Meek.
Wednesday, the Thunder practiced in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts on Tommy Miller Field. It was wet and cold, the coldest practice of the year, Miller said.
Cold practices are part of the “reward” for making the playoffs, but JCA’s players — many having grown up around the program — will take it.
“In eight-man football, we were a championship team,” senior lineman Dillon Mason said. “Starting out in 11-man went kind of slow, but it’s gotten better.
“Now, we’re finally showing we can do something in 11-man.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.