Realigned league still a tough row to hoe
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Thanks to the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s region realignment, Escambia County High School’s Blue Devils won’t have to face four of the teams to whom they lost during last year’s 2-8 season.
The “new” Class 4A, Region 1, expanded to eight teams this season, no longer includes powerhouse Thomasville, which claimed a 45-22 win over ECHS last year, and Class 5A Carroll-Phenix City, to whom the Devils lost 28-6. Satsuma, a 30-14 winner over ECHS, is no longer a member of the region. In addition, Class 5A Faith Academy (which edged the Devils 21-20) is not on this year’s schedule.
On the surface, that appears to be a good thing. But in reality, the region could be even stronger this year than last.
“It’s still a tough region, still a tough schedule,” said second-year Blue Devils coach Rico Jackson. “We won’t play Thomasville, Carroll, Satsuma or Faith Academy, but we’ve got Hillcrest (Evergreen), which won the (3A) state championship, in our region and we’ll have Clarke County, which made it to the (3A) semifinals. Plus, Williamson went to the 5A playoffs last year, and (Class 3A) Flomaton (4-6 last year) is senior-heavy, so it’s not really going to be any easier.”
Hillcrest-Evergreen went 14-1, won the 3A state title and defeated ECHS 40-8 last year. Clarke County, which finished 9-3 after losing to Hillcrest in the Class 3A semifinals, and Williamson, which went 7-4 and made the 2017 Class 5A playoffs, are all in the region. Of the three, only Hillcrest was on the ECHS schedule last year.
The other new team on the schedule is Francis Marion, which posted a 4-6 mark in Class 1A play last year.
Region holdovers are defending Class 4A state champ UMS-Wright, which rolled past the Blue Devils 41-8 last year; Andalusia, which won 12 games — including 41-0 over ECHS — before losing to UMS-Wright in the state semifinals; and W.S. Neal, which posted a 27-8 win over ECHS and made it to the second round of the 4A playoffs last year.
Six of the teams on this year’s slate earned postseason slots in their respective classifications last year. That’s impressive enough.
Even more impressive is that five of the region’s teams are ranked in the state’s Class 4A Top 10 in the Alabama Sports Writers Association preseason poll. UMS-Wright is ranked as the state’s top team; Hillcrest is ranked second; Andalusia holds the fourth position; W.S. Neal is the eighth-ranked team; and Clarke County fills the number-9 slot. Williamson didn’t make the Top 10, but received votes.
Despite all that, Jackson feels that his team controls its own destiny.
“It’s not going to be easy, but I feel like we’ve got a good team,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re playing UMS-Wright, Flomaton or the Dallas Cowboys. If our kids go out mentally prepared and execute the way they should, I feel really good about our chances.
“I feel like we can beat anybody on our schedule; I feel like we can get beat by anybody on our schedule.”
The Devils will get a final tune-up this Friday when T.R. Miller visits ECHS for a preseason showdown. That contest is a week in advance of the Friday, August 31, season opener, for which ECHS will travel to play Wilcox Central, a team they beat 8-0 last year.
News photo by Don Fletcher