SPRING GARDEN — Spring Garden keeps going deeper in the Alabama high school football playoffs, and the next step is clear.
“The next step would be making it out of the third round,” quarterback Ryley Kirk said. “That’s as far as we’ve ever been, and that was last year, but it’s definitely trying to make it to the state championship and win it.”
The ability to go deep just might be a reason why the Panthers go deeper this season.
Spring Garden (10-1) goes to Hackleburg (5-6) in Friday’s second-round action, looking to return to the quarterfinals. The Panthers made it that deep for the first time ever in 2018, after making the second round three years in a row.
Reasons abound to think Spring Garden could push deeper than ever this year, and the Kirk-to-Cooper Austin connection ranks highly among them.
Headed into Friday’s game, Kirk has completed 78 of 141 passes for 1,295 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Austin leads the team with 30 catches, 662 yards and 11 touchdowns.
It all comes within the context of a balanced offense. Running backs Luke Welsh and Weston Kirk have combined to rush for 1,773 yards and 24 touchdowns this season, with Welsh accounting for 1,028 yards and 19 scores.
The Panthers have other receiving threats. Chaz Pope, the possession receiver, has 24 catches for 324 yards and three touchdowns, and Weston Kirk has caught three touchdown passes.
Spring Garden averages 36.6 points a game because it can tempt a defense to crowd the line of scrimmage, and because the Panthers can throw over the top. Kirk-to-Austin connections average 22.1 yards.
“It’s the best we’ve had, overall, since I’ve been here,” said Jason Howard, Spring Garden’s head coach for 15 years over two stays.
That’s saying something, considering Gaines Petty, Spring Garden’s top receiver a year ago, is playing collegiately, at Cumberland, an NAIA school in Lebanon, Tenn.
A year later, Kirk and Austin have shown up as regulars in the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s prep spotlights, a weekly brag sheet released to media around the state. They’ve appeared together in four weekly releases.
Austin, the second receiver a year ago, stepped into Petty’s role. The sophomore has shown quick feet and good hands, Howard said.
Kirk, a junior, continues to mature at quarterback.
“Ryley is pretty accurate,” Howard said. “One of the things that’s pretty impressive, when you start looking at Ryley, is there’s games where he only has one incompletion. He may be 14 out of 15, and it’s not throwing a bunch of hitches and yards after the catch. He’s throwing the ball down field.”
The Kirk-Austin combination connects two storylines from different tracks.
Austin, son of Spring Garden boys’ and girls’ basketball coach Ricky Austin, added football in the seventh grade.
“I love Coach Howard,” Cooper Austin said. “As a kid, we came to every football game. We never missed a football game. It didn’t matter if we were four hours away. We were going, or if it was negative-10 degrees or a hundred degrees.
“Every football game, we’d play on the sideline, at the end of the grass, all of the little kids. I just fell in love with it.”
Ryley Kirk attended Spring Garden through first grade then neighboring Piedmont, just over the Cherokee-Calhoun County line, second grade through his freshman year of high school. He returned to Spring Garden as a sophomore, a year after cousin Weston Kirk returned to Spring Garden.
“I had always played with him, through Pee Wee,” Ryley Kirk said. “My ninth-grade year, not playing with him, just felt different, so I felt like I needed to finish my high school career with him.”
Ryley Kirk arrived at Spring Garden at an opportune time. Cedar Bluff reclassified up to 2A before the 2018 season, removing what had been the Panthers’ hard ceiling in region play. Former region rival Gaston, which eliminated them in the second round in 2008 and 2009, bumped up to 2A in 2012.
Spring Garden won its first two region titles last season and this season and made its deepest playoff run a year ago. A school known for Final Four runs in girls’ basketball, and whose boys’ basketball team made it for the first time since 2005 last season, is quickly growing a football reputation.
The Garden hopes to keep going deeper in football.
“Daddy is the type, of course he’s ready for basketball season, but he’s going to root for us, no matter how long it’s going to take us to come back to basketball,” Cooper Austin said. “He wants us to win a state championship. He wants us to go 15 games. He wants us to have to cancel games during basketball season, because we’re still playing.
“He has the love for Spring Garden that you can’t find at other schools.”
Like Ricky Austin’s son, it seems to run deep.