An historic high school football season comes down to this — six coverage-area teams in state semifinals, including a record five from Calhoun County.
It’s not just a record. It’s a record by far for a county that had never had more than two semifinalists in previous years.
Four semifinalists from Calhoun County will play in two semifinals ... Anniston at Jacksonville in Class 4A; and Wellborn at Piedmont in Class 3A. Oxford plays host to Pinson Valley in Class 6A.
This comes in a year that saw 15 coverage-area teams make the playoffs and 14 reach the second round. All eight from Calhoun County made headlines by winning in the first round, and five have gotten through to the semifinals.
Alexandria and Ohatchee were a combined eight points away from reaching the third round.
Add Clay Central’s Class 5A semifinal showdown at Mortimer Jordan, and the possibility exists that The Anniston Star’s coverage area will have teams in four state championship games in Auburn during the first week in December. Calhoun County is guaranteed at least two.
It’s Thanksgiving, all right, and prep football fans in the area have a lot for which to be thankful. Let’s get to the storylines:
1. Oxford chases history
Oxford (12-1) has made the semifinals in 6A for the second time and first since 2011, when there was no 7A. A victory Friday guarantees the Yellow Jackets their deepest run since bumping up to 6A after the 2005 season.
A proud program that won 5A titles in 1988, 1989 and 1993 can return to statewide success. All the Yellow Jackets have to do is beat two-time defending champion Pinson Valley (10-2) for the second time this season.
The first game was a classic. Oxford roared back from a 19-0 deficit to take the lead, then came from behind, again, to win 34-33 when Roc Taylor tipped Trey Higgins’ falling-down pass to Miguel Mitchell in the end zone.
The prize for that victory? Getting to play Pinson Valley on Lamar Field Friday.
2. Bulldog breakthrough
Anniston (9-4) has made the semifinals for the first time since 2011, matching its deepest playoff run since winning a 6A title in 1994.
In many regards, Anniston has become the perfect storm. A second-year coach, Rico White, gets his program established in year one and returns 16 starters. Transfers Daveon Dukes (Saks), Tony Hunley (Saks) and A.J. Brown (Cleburne County) make a major impact.
Add that Anniston played one of the state’s top schedules, losing to three top-five teams in the Alabama Sports Writers Association rankings (Catholic Montgomery, American Christian and Jacksonville) plus Region 6 playoff qualifier Oneonta. All were competitive games.
There’s not a more battle-tested team in these playoffs. Now, the Bulldogs seek to avenge that 38-30 loss to Jacksonville and reach the state finals for the first time since a guy named Rodney Bivens roamed the sideline.
They come loaded with a defense that’s given up just 26 points in three playoff games.
3. Golden Eagles soaring
Jacksonville didn’t just break its historical second-round barrier. The Golden Eagles (11-2) soared past it, beating Northside 63-27 in a quarterfinal showdown of teams ranked in the top five in 4A at regular-season’s end.
Jacksonville has scored 55, 56 and 63 points in its playoff victories over Cordova, St. John Paul II and Northside.
They’ve done it with a great running back, with senior Rontarius Wiggins standing at 5,214 yards and 77 touchdowns over this season and 2018.
Jacksonville has also done it with balance. Quarterback Luke Jackson has thrown for 3,424 yards and 35 touchdowns in his two seasons as the starter.
Jacksonville’s string of seven consecutive wins started with a 38-30 win at Anniston.
4. All’s Wellborn
Wellborn (12-1) just avenged its only loss this season, beating Randolph County 27-20 on the road in the quarterfinals to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 1995.
The Panthers go to Piedmont looking to beat the Bulldogs for the second time this season and second time since 1971. Wellborn beat the Bulldogs 40-35 in the Panthers’ regular-season finale to end Piedmont’s seven-game winning streak in the rivalry, dating back to 2008.
Wellborn has turned high preseason expectations for a team returning 22 starters into reality. Since Oct. 4, the Panthers have beaten five playoff teams and another, Pleasant Valley, that likely would’ve made the playoffs from any region other than 3A, Region 6.
The kids that gave Wellborn so much hope while romping through lower levels have come of age for 11th-year head coach Jeff Smith, a Wellborn graduate. They look to make the state finals for the first time since 1977.
5. Still Piedmont
Piedmont (12-1) shook off that November loss at Wellborn and rides a four-game winning streak, all romps over playoff teams. The Bulldogs have beaten Geraldine twice, J.B. Pennington and Lauderdale County by a combined score of 145-41.
Here’s the scary thing ... the Bulldogs have done it without Ethan Swinford, the Munford transfer and one of Piedmont’s top offensive weapons before suffering a fractured fibula against Glencoe on Oct. 11. Cleared to play last week, he saw limited action in the quarterfinals against Geraldine and should play more this week.
Piedmont, seemingly, has rolled on without him, averaging 38.7 points since his injury. He didn’t play in the loss at Wellborn.
Can he make the difference this time, as Piedmont takes to the Field of Champions looking to make the state finals for the fourth time in five years?
6. Deep-run Danny
Clay Central (11-2) lost no less than 2018 state-finals most valuable player Shamari Simmons yet made the semifinals again, under second-year head coach Danny Horn.
Horn, of course, is no stranger to this. The Alabama High School Hall of Fame coach will make his 15th semifinal appearance over stops at three schools ... Clay County, Benjamin Russell and Clay Central. He’s won seven state titles, all while coaching in Clay County, with two runner-up finishes.
He knows how to get it done this time of year, which he showed last year. After losing midseason games to Jasper and Mortimer Jordan, the Vols didn’t lose again.
A year later, Clay Central lost midseason games to the same two teams but, like last year, hasn’t lost since. Six weeks after losing to Jasper in double overtime at home, the Vols went on the road and beat Jasper 20-7 in a second-round playoff game.
Is there a safer bet anywhere than a Horn-coached team in the playoffs? His teams are 69-20 in the postseason.
Contact Anniston Star Sports Writer Joe Medley at email@example.com. Twitter: @jmedley_star.