Jason Howard

Jason Howard led Spring Garden to the state playoffs in 2008, 2009 and 2012.

SPRING GARDEN — After reaching the Class 1A playoffs in 2012 and earning a postseason victory for the third time in school history, Spring Garden fell out of playoff contention last year at 3-7.

When asked what would be needed for the Panthers to make the postseason this time, head coach Jason Howard responded, “We’ve got to have no injuries and several of them are just going to have to grow up. They played last year. They got that experience. Now it’s time to grow up and step up and play.”

Injuries came early and often last year. Both Dakota Lambert and Andrew McLarty, two players counted on to fill running back positions in Spring Garden’s grind-it-out, ground-oriented offense, each suffered a season-ending injury before the season began. Howard said both players appeared a little rusty at the start of 2014 spring practice but were “right back in the swing” when spring work ended.

Howard reported midweek that there have been no injuries so far, quickly knocking on the nearest piece of wood.

The Alabama High School Athletic Association’s bi-annual reclassification seems to have improved Spring Garden’s playoff chances, too. The Panthers remain in Class 1A, Region 7 — now a seven-team region — for the next two years. Region 7 was a nine-team region the past two seasons, but two of the top three region teams last year are gone. No. 2 Donoho was assigned to a new region, and No. 3 Collinsville moved to Class 2A.

No. 1 Valley Head and No. 4 Gaylesville return. Cedar Bluff, Coosa Christian, Jacksonville Christian and Woodville also return after missing postseason play in 2013. Spring Garden defeated Coosa Christian (34-7), Jacksonville Christian (56-35) and Woodville (47-22) last year and plays both Coosa Christian and JCA at home this time. If the Panthers take care of business, Spring Garden has a legitimate opportunity to be playing in November.            

Sophomore Ben Ivey was to have been the junior varsity quarterback as a freshman and the varsity’s quarterback of the future. All that changed when his older brother Will, the returning varsity starter at quarterback, was one of the players who went down with injuries. Until Will returned, Ben called varsity signals. Now the younger Ivey is his team’s quarterback of the present.

“I think it’s been beneficial to him,” Howard said of Ben’s baptism by fire, noting that he took a lot of snaps in important games. “I think he’s going to be a lot calmer when he’s in pressure situations this year.”            

McLarty will be Spring Garden’s jack-of-all-trades on offense, seeing time at wingback, tailback and wide receiver.

Lambert will be the primary tailback. When McLarty moves to tailback, either Lambert or Kyle Reece will move to wingback. Matt Mullinax will be the fullback. The split end and flanker slots will be a rotation of Dylan Short, Austin Shell and Devin Mobbs. When the formation calls for a tight end, Dalton Kerr will fill that role. The interior of the offensive line should see Sam Parris and Ethan Rogers at the tackles, Kris Holcomb and Corey Williams as guards with Taylor Hardin currently ahead in the fight for center.

Most of the offense will also play defense. McLarty, Ivey, Reece, Chase Jennings and Austin Carver will fill the three secondary spots. Holcomb, Lambert, Mullinax and Williams will be the linebackers with Hardin and Short providing depth. Morgan Twilley will start at one end. Kerr and Dawson Broome will rotate at the other end. Dylan Kirk will be the nose guard with Parris and Colten Livingston at the tackles.