With fall football practice now underway at every level, I wanted to step back a moment and discuss my alma mater and its struggles on the athletic playing field.
No, not Alabama. We've pretty much talked its struggles and triumphs to bloody death at this point. And since this blog is centered around Alabama football, we're almost guaranteed to discuss Alabama football ad nauseam in the coming weeks and months.
The program I want to discuss is Opelika.
As many of the people who read this blog regularly (or know me at all) already know, I graduated from Opelika in 1999, after four years there, most of them spent either playing football or preparing to play football. It's one of the great points of pride in my life to say that I played football -- Opelika football -- under Spence McCracken. Not everybody believes me when I say it.
This is one thing I do not miss.
As such, even though I moved away after graduation and haven't lived there for any length of time since then, I follow with great interest the fortunes of the hometown team, as do many of my fellow alums. I check the score every Friday before bed, and even (if I have the chance) occasionally even tune in to hear the radio broadcast from Mark Mitchell and ... um, whoever's helping him these days.
Which means, as most people in Opelika know, I've been subject to frustration.
It didn't occur to me until this past spring, when Opelika's basketball team lost a heartbreaker to Central-Phenix City in a regional final. It's worth noting, of course, that Opelika and Central had already played three times in 2010: Opelika had won twice, Central once ... but the Red Devils prevailed when it counted, and that was that.
I remember my heart bleeding for the Opelika kids. Then again, this seems to keep happening to folks from Opelika. A quick history:
• 1998: We might as well start with my own senior year. After missing the playoffs three straight years under coach McCracken, Opelika climbed every mountain in 1999, with early wins over Vigor and Prattville setting the tone to an undefeated run that included wins over Benjamin Russell, Central (our first big win there) and Auburn. We were ranked second in the state going into the playoffs; after surviving in Montgomery vs. Lee (one of the strangest games of all-time), we faced a Tuscaloosa County team (the defending state champs) at home. It was the worst possible matchup: County's size and veer option nullified all our speed advantages on defense; we still had a chance to tie down the stretch, only a pass to a wide-open fullback bounced off his hands and into the hands of a County linebacker, ending the game.
(Hang on, I have to pound my broken finger with a hammer a few minutes. Back in a minute.)
County went on to lose the following week to Vigor — yes, the same Vigor team we'd beaten in Week 1 (OWWWWW!!!!) — and Vestavia (seriously) beat Vigor to win the blue map.
• 1999: With senior Corey Larkins — the best player in the state that year, as well as one of the best high school players I ever saw — the featured player, Opelika actually rose to No. 1 in the nation for a brief time. As an added bonus, a sophomore named Sajason Finley evolved into a star by midseason, giving them the reliable second option they needed. Of course, when Larkins and Finley both suffered season-ending knee injuries, offensive production was limited to basically nil. Opelika eventually lost in the playoffs to Lee — a team that they'd drilled during the regular season (playing at full strength, obviously). With no other dominant teams left in 6A, Lee eventually surprised everybody by going to the state finals, where the Generals lost to Clay-Chalkville in overtime.
• 2000: Coach McCracken's most talented Opelika team featured the following seniors: Lemarcus Rowell, Melvin Oliver, Derrick and Dexter Sistrunk; the following juniors: Finley, Will Herring, Tommy Jackson; and at least blue-chip sophomore: Tez Doolittle. And there were a bevy of other talented players I've forgotten. The team was, frankly, scary good. Only then (in what will eventually become a theme) they faced Daphne in the third round of the playoffs, in the pouring rain (seriously, it was a week after Auburn had just beaten Alabama in the sleet and I was suffering flashbacks). Daphne scored twice, both times capitalizing on bizarre mistakes in the punting game (once Matthew Motley fell down while kicking the ball, another time he dropped the snap). And that was pretty much it — Opelika recorded a safety, couldn't score on the ensuing possession, and lost 14-2. Unbelievable. Daphne lost to Hoover in the state finals.
• 2001: Herring, TJ and Finley closed their careers by again winning the region ... and again losing to Daphne, on its way to winning its first state title. Go ahead and start grinding your teeth.
• 2002: Another undefeated Opelika suffered another first-round exit: this time, they conquered Daphne in Round 2, only to get drilled at home by Prattville in Round 3. Hoover won state again, beating Jeff Davis.
• 2003: Ditto 2002, except this time the third-round foe was Daphne's Pat White. Opelika has, to this point, not lost a regular-season game in more than two seasons, and has nothing to show for it.
(Note: It is unclear if, during this period, they could've won anything had they actually reached Birmingham. Hoover was in the midst of its reign of dominance at this point: five state titles in six years, barely challenged along the way. Of course, since they never played us, I say they were never that good. So there.)
• 2005: The 2004 Opelika team had an off-year, but that didn't mean the community didn't have a team to rally behind: the OHS basketball squad rose to as high as No. 2 in the state ... only to meet the top-ranked team (Jeff Davis) in the first round of the regionals. Thank you and please drive through.
• 2005: I never saw the '05 football squad up close, but I knew they were something special when Dad told me they could be the best team in Opelika history. It was the team that finally shed the "can't get outta the third round" curse, going to Prattville and pulling a massive upset, 17-15. That meant the only thing standing between us and the long-awaited Birmingham berth was ... Daphne. Yeah.
Except we were winning the damn thing 21-17 with 48 seconds left, and Daphne needed to go 80 yards to beat us ... and somehow they did. Incredible. Not so coincidentally, the Trojans failed to show up the following week in Birmingham, losing to Hoover by a score of something like 674-3 (note: the actual score was 56-14).
• 2006: Rinse, lather, repeat — the 'Dawgs this time made it back to the semifinals, only to lose a hard-fought game to Prattville (who upset Hoover for the title the following week).
That pretty much was the end of the run: coach McCracken coached two more seasons, losing in the second round both times (to, yes, Daphne and Prattville). Of course, that didn't mean one other sport couldn't give us one more heartbreak ...
• 2008: Opelika's baseball team drops only one game all season and breezes to the state finals vs. Hoover, in Montgomery. The two teams split the first two games (in a best-of-3), and Opelika was winning the damned game 6-2 going into the final inning, only to see Hoover (of all teams, Hoover!) rally for five runs in the last frame for a 7-6 win. I can't find the reports from that weekend, and frankly I don't want to. I don't think I ever felt worse for a group of kids than I did for Opelika's after that game (and I don't know any of them).
To be perfectly fair, I should point out how fortunate Opelika people have been the past few years to even be in these conversations in the first place. Would you rather be a fan of Opelika High or, say, Smiths Station (sorry Maguire)? Russell County? Or any of the rest of the programs that are never in the title picture, much less suffering near-misses.
To be even more fair, I should point out that Opelika virtually owned the state track meet during the last decade, with titles in '98, '99, '00, '03, '04, '06 and '07. There are worse places to be than Opelika. Nobody would deny that.
Further, it's worth pointing out that high school sports are not (or at least, shouldn't be) about winning rings. High school sports are about teaching life lessons, about giving kids chances where they would otherwise have none, about turning boys into men. It's no tragedy to say you never won a state championship while you were in high school.
The real tragedy, I guess, is to have never had the chance.