It is only now that I am able to write about the experience that was the 2019 football season at Briarwood Christian School. Unless you had a son on the team or you were involved coaching or otherwise, you really can’t understand how special it was. It’s difficult to put into words, but it’s worth trying.
THE BRIARWOOD WAY
In order to understand the 2019 season, you have to understand the 26 seasons that came before it: 26 straight seasons of making the playoffs, 3 state championships, 6 appearances in the state championship game, and 12 appearances in the semi-finals. THAT is tradition. Football coaches have told me Briarwood teams are known for two things: being extremely well coached and disciplined while playing extremely hard no matter the score. It’s the Briarwood Way.
In December 2018, Coach Fred Yancey, the man who coached all 26 of those teams and the man who more than any other helped create the Briarwood Way, announced his retirement. Coach Yancey is by any measure a hall of fame coach, but he is also a hall of fame man. His retirement was big news. After searching for a few weeks, the school announced that Coach Matthew Forester, a former Briarwood player and present defensive coordinator, would become the head coach. Known as one of the great defensive coaches in the state and popular with the players, Coach Forester stepped into the role of head coach on December 26, 2018.
As a result of the coaching transition, 2019 began with much more uncertainty than normal for Briarwood. There was a new head coach for the first time since George H.W. Bush was in the White House. The new head coach in his first head coaching job. The team hit hard in key places by graduation with no clear replacements. As one Briarwood parent said to me in the spring: “It’s going to be interesting!” We both chuckled when he made that statement – having no idea how prophetic it would be.
To say the 2019 season did not start out as planned would be an understatement. A harbinger of things to come happened in the opening moments of the first day of practice in pads: a starting receiver went down with a season ending knee injury in a non-contact drill. Other injuries mounted. The clock was ticking toward the season opener against big-time rival the Chelsea Hornets and apprehension was in the air. Still, there was the Briarwood Way and the belief that somehow, someway we would find a way to win.
That belief was shaken in a terrible opening game loss to Chelsea – a 17-14 defeat on our home field that we had many opportunities to win. No sooner had the stadium lights dimmed than reports started coming in about how good our second opponent was. The Pleasant Grove Spartans would bring a much better team than Chelsea to Lions Pride Stadium the next Friday night. It was a big region game sure to have playoff implications.
Most coaches say that a team makes its most dramatic improvement from game one to game two. That was certainly the case for Briarwood as the Lions played much better against an exceptionally talented opponent. After going toe to toe with the Spartans for much of the game, the Lions faltered and Pleasant Grove pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 26-14 win. The Lions were 0-2 – and that wasn’t the worst part. During the game, our starting quarterback and our starting nose guard were lost with what would be season ending injuries. The backup quarterback who came in was 14 years old – a freshman. Yes, a very talented freshman, but, still, a fourteen year old freshman.
Among the parents and fans, there was a sense of doom bordering on despair. There was talk of a losing season when taking an honest look at the remaining opponents. The Lions would likely be big underdogs in at least four of the games left. The playoff streak was certainly in jeopardy. There was a degree of panic setting in around the program.
There were two places that panic did not set in – the Briarwood coaches offices and the Briarwood locker room.
GETTING A “W” AND TURNING IT AROUND
When you are 0-2, any win is a good win. The Woodlawn Colonels came to Lions Pride Stadium and the Lions beat a struggling team 38-20. There was relief to get a win, but not much else. No one felt the team played particularly well. Besides, the first road game loomed – against the always tough Wenonah Dragons. It was that first road game at Wenonah that saw the season turn. On paper, that game only shows a rather pedestrian 16-7 Briarwood victory, but several of the players will tell you that is when the season began to turn and the team gained its first real shot of confidence.
GETTING ON A ROLL
The always tough, class 6A power Hartselle Tigers were the game five opponent. The Briarwood defense smothered Hartselle all night and the young offense showed signs of coming into its own in a solid 21-10 Lions victory. The team’s confidence was growing and things were beginning to gell. Solid victories over John Carroll and Parker followed. Suddenly, the Lions had won five in a row and a winning season and playoff birth looked assured.
The eighth game was “The Ramsay Game.” That is how it will be referred to in Briarwood lore. It was a game no one who was there will ever forget. It deserves a blog post all its own. For the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that Ramsay was the top ranked team in 5A with a roster filled with major college prospects – several with multiple SEC offers. At halftime, the Lions trailed 20-6 and starting running back Luke Prewett had gone out of the game with a shoulder injury and would not return. NO ONE in the stadium thought the Lions would come back – except the coaches and the 60+ players in the locker room at halftime. With a series of spectacular plays and a blocked field goal as time expired, the Lions roared back and pulled out a 21-20 win that would give them the region championship.
The season concluded with two tough road games. The first was a solid win against a very talented Fairfield team. The season ended with a 7-0 win against previously undefeated 6A Hueytown. It was time for the playoffs. Year 27 of the playoffs to be exact.
The playoffs opened with the Lions on an eight game winning streak with a 9-1 record. How is that? Chelsea was penalized by the AHSAA for using an ineligble player in their first few games, meaning they forfeited the opening game. The Lions were on a roll and the question was “How far can they go?”
After easily disposing of Marbury in the opening round, a long road trip to south Alabama to take on the always tough Jackson Aggies loomed. Briarwood had lots of fairly recent history playing at Jackson – some positive, some negative. The 2019 Lions marched into Jackson’s Legion Field stadium, ignoring the long bus ride, the freezing cold, and the talent on the other side of the field for a dominant 24-14 win that served notice to the rest of the state the Lions were for real.
Round three saw the undefeated Bibb County Choctaws come to Lions Pride Stadium. They brought a rugged running game that helped them average 30 points per game and a fast, physical defense. What followed was an old fashioned, physical battle between two really good teams. The Lions prevailed 7-3 and held the Choctaws to less than 100 yards of offense. Briarwood was on to the semi-finals, brimming with confidence. The postgame celebration was passionate, but a little subdued. A semi-final rematch with the Pleasant Grove Spartans was a week away.
The Pleasant Grove Spartans made their return trip to Lions Pride Stadium with an awful lot of confidence themselves. They had multiple players with multiple D1 offers. They had just avenged their only loss of the season by blowing out Ramsay in round three. They were solid and fast on defense and they were a juggernaut on offense with an experienced quarterback and multiple receivers with D1 offers. The Spartans and Lions would play for a shot at the state championship.
What unfolded can only be described as a defensive performance for the ages. The Lions held the Spartans to 16 points – their lowest total of the season. The offense made some plays and the Lions held a 14-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Opportunities came to add to the lead, but drives stalled out. The Spartans put a drive together late in the fourth quarter and pulled out a 16-14 win. Even on that drive, the Lions almost stopped them multiple times.
A season for the ages was over.
That Pleasant Grove loss will always sting for anyone associated with Briarwood football. We were agonizingly close to playing for a state title. However, a few weeks time has given opportunity for all of us to begin to put the season in perspective and appreciate the season for what it was: a season for the ages.
Over 32,000 young men played high school in Alabama in 2019. Most them got the great experience of being on a team, persevering, winning the game, celebrating with the family, and a hug from the girlfriend afterward.
However, only 60 or so young men got to experience being part of the 2019 Briarwood Lions. As a father, I am so very grateful that my son (#32) got to be part of this team and this season. He has memories that will last a lifetime. So do I and so do many others.
What made this team so special? It was not that 11 game winning streak – although that didn’t hurt! Honestly, I believe what made this team special was its CHARACTER. Certainly that character enabled the team to persevere through crushing adversity early in the season. However, this team did far more than just “not quit.” I watched intently all season and never saw a hint of dissension on this team on the sidelines or on the practice field – even during the early loses. I have heard several of the players say that this was the “closest” team they had ever played on. Yes, they worked hard. Yes, they persevered. Yes, they won. They loved each other too. An incredible senior class embraced an incredible junior class and together they brought along everyone.
As a dad, it was a joy to watch unfold. I will always treasure this team. Each young man on the team. Each coach. I am so very grateful that my son got to be part of it. I am so very grateful for the young men he went to battle with and the coaches who led so well. I am so very grateful that my son has memories of this season that will never fade. He will appreciate that more in a few years.
The 2019 Briarwood Lions. Yes, on one hand, I wish we could have pulled out that Pleasant Grove game. On the other hand, I wouldn’t change anything!
2 thoughts on “A Season for the Ages – the 2019 Briarwood Lions Football team”
Greg thank you for a great article! It has always been a joy to be around young number 32, quiet yet so fired up, a very competitive young man! But also such a great young man of Charscter, and that will last a lifetime. And thank you for raising that kind of young man, because that just doesn’t happen . You as parents have had an opportunity to build into his life. Thank you for causing one young man to become a great young man because you have raised him well! Blessings to you, Coach Saito.
Wow! Thank you Coach Saito. So grateful that you have poured into many lives.