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Road gets rough for Red Bay, Tharptown in loaded football region

Tharptown’s move from Class 1A to Class 2A—announced last week as part of the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s most recent round of reclassification and realignment—came as no surprise to head football coach Kevin Lacey.

Nor did the fact that the Wildcats’ region schedule for 2018 and 2019 got considerably more difficult. A bump in competition was expected.

But this?

“We pretty much knew we were going up, with everything we’d been hearing about the numbers,” said Lacey, who just finished his second season as Tharptown’s head coach. “And we knew it was gonna be tough. We didn’t know it would be that tough.”

Tharptown, which will have the fifth-smallest enrollment in Class 2A when the new alignment kicks in next fall, will compete in a loaded Region 7 that also includes county rival Red Bay, always-talented Sheffield, perennial powers Colbert County and Tanner, and an Addison team that finished 10-3 this season after losing in the 1A quarterfinals.

“It’s one of the toughest regions around. Top to bottom, it’s really tough,” said Lacey, whose Wildcats went 1-9 overall this season and 1-5 in Class 1A, Region 8. “We imagined we would be in there with Red Bay and Hatton and those teams. Then Addison, which is a powerhouse, came up with us and ended up in our region. And Colbert County bumped down, which I had no idea was gonna happen until a day or two before it came out. That was a surprise.

“It feels like we got sandwiched in there with some of the best teams from 1A, 2A and 3A.”

Colbert County, which made 25 playoff appearances and won three Class 3A state titles (with three runner-up finishes) in a 26-year stretch from 1992-2017, will now be the 17th-largest school in Class 2A starting next fall. The Indians’ status as one of the premier programs in north Alabama is matched by that of Tanner, which won at least 10 games every year from 2008-15 and claimed back-to-back Class 2A state crowns in 2012 and 2013.

Factor in Addison, which brought home a Blue Map as recently as 2005 and has won five playoff games the past two years under current head coach David Smothers, and the new-look Region 7 will be a virtual Who’s Who of small-school prep football.

“It’s a very tradition-rich region,” said Red Bay coach Michael Jackson, who has led the Tigers to a 33-11 record and two region titles in four seasons. “I think it was a good shakeup. It was the most change we’ve had in quite a while. We basically picked up four new teams, so it changed our region pretty good. It’s a very talented region, as far as speed goes, and you’ve also got Addison coming off a big year in 1A.

“I think it’s one of the best 2A regions in the state, with a lot of traditional teams in there that have won a lot of football games. It should make things very interesting and very competitive the whole year.”

Red Bay is at least familiar with Tanner, having faced the Rattlers 13 times (and beaten them four times) in 14 years from 2000-13. The Tigers haven’t played a regular-season game against Colbert County since 1961, but they have played junior varsity games against the Indians in each of the past two years.

“They’ve both been really good in the past, and I expect those guys to have good teams next year,” Jackson said of Tanner and Colbert County. “It’s an extremely tough region. With Addison coming into the region, that just adds another tough team. They’re coming off a good year right now, and they’ve got some kids coming back.

“We’re excited about it. It changes up the schedule some. It helps that we’ll have Colbert County and Sheffield at home at Red Bay.”

In addition to facing the Indians and the Bulldogs at home, Red Bay will also host Tharptown in region play. Class 3A Colbert Heights (Week Zero) and Class 4A Wilson (Week 10) will also visit Fred Bostick Memorial Stadium in 2018.

The Tigers will travel for road games against Region 7 opponents Addison, Hatton and Tanner, while also visiting Class 3A Phil Campbell (Week Two) and border rival Belmont (Week Four) in non-region play.

Wilson, which lasted visited The Fred in 2006, replaces Cherokee as Red Bay’s Week 10 non-region opponent. The Warriors went 10-2 this season, losing 28-24 to Cherokee County in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs.

“We were looking for a game ten, and Wilson had a game ten open,” said Jackson, whose Tigers are coming off a 5-5 season. “Wilson does a really good job. We’ve played them in seven-on-seven. I know Coach [Scott] Brown really well. I’ve watched them play the last couple of years. I think it will be a good game for us to play instead of having to travel a lot further.

“We had to go up in class. I had no luck at all finding any 1A or 2A schools to play. We didn’t get one call. So we had to go up to a bigger school.”

Tharptown will soon know all about facing bigger schools. With an enrollment of 166 students in grades 10-12, the Wildcats will be the second-smallest school in the newly aligned Region 7 [only Addison, with an enrollment of 163 students, will be smaller]. Tanner (eighth), Sheffield (12th), Hatton (13th) and Colbert County (17th) will all rank in the top third of Class 2A starting next fall.

Tharptown is scheduled to play 1A opponents Shoals Christian (Week Zero), Brilliant (Week Five) and Vina (Week 10) in non-region play, but the Wildcats’ schedule will largely have an unfamiliar—and challenging—feel to it. They’ve never faced Colbert County, Sheffield or Tanner in football before.

“They’re all brand new,” said Lacey, who said on Sunday that he is still searching for a fourth non-region opponent for 2018. “They’re all very good teams. You hear a lot about them. With what we’ve had in the past, swapping films with other coaches, we haven’t really come across a lot of these teams. It’s pretty much all brand new to us.”

Tharptown will not be the only Franklin County school to jump up a classification. After spending the last 14 years in Class 2A, Phil Campbell will compete as the eighth-smallest school in Class 3A (with an enrollment of 239 students in grades 10-12) starting in the fall of 2018. The Bobcats will be one of two new teams in Class 3A, Region 8, joining Westminster Christian [which will drop down from 4A] and holdovers Clements, Colbert Heights, East Lawrence, Lauderdale County and Lexington.

The Bobcats’ most successful three-year run in the last two decades came as a 3A school, when they went 29-8 from 1999-2001. Phil Campbell made just three trips to the Class 2A playoffs over the past 14 seasons, with two of those coming in 2014 and 2015 under current head coach Ryan Swinney.

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