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Champions Challenge participants live up to billing

Montgomery mayor Todd Strange jokes around with Leeds senior Michael Rankins during Tuesday’s Champions Challenge press conference. (Staff Photo)

By Tim Gayle
RRS Correspondent
(August 19, 2015)

The six teams participating in the 2015 Champions Challenge got an unexpected pep talk on Tuesday morning from Montgomery mayor Todd Strange, on hand to welcome the five visiting teams and G.W. Carver to the Capital City.

“You’re playing for yourself, you’re playing for your team,” Strange said. “Surely, you’re playing for your parents and your coaches, but let me also suggest you’re playing for your citizens – for your mayors, your city councilmen, for everybody that has done anything to help you get in the position you are right now. Like it or not, you have an awesome responsibility. You’ve got the greatest opportunity to be a role model. And you want that example to be positive.”

The annual event, a jamboree for some teams, a season opening game for others, kicks off Friday with three-time defending 3A state champion Madison Academy (14-1 last season) facing defending 4A state champion Leeds (14-1) on Friday at Cramton Bowl at 7 p.m., in a rematch of last year’s season opener won by Leeds.

“It’s an honor to come here and play Madison Academy,” Leeds coach Keith Etheridge said. “We have a lot of respect for their program. We’ve had some classic matchups in the past.”

Few games could top last year’s 27-24 upset at Madison Academy last year than snapped the Mustangs’ 25-game winning streak and this year’s game should be one of the best in the River Region all year. Leeds has quarterback TaDarryl Marshall, who is committed to Tennessee, as well as tailback Tre Nation, while Madison Academy will counter with running back Malik Miller, who is committed to Auburn, as well as offensive tackle Austin Troxwell, considered one of the nation’s top recruits in 2017.

“They already had a contract (to play in Leeds),” said Alabama High School Athletic Director and Coaches Association director Alvin Briggs, who set up the matches for the Champions’ Challenge. “And when I talked to both coaches, there was not even a second thought about playing in the Champions’ Challenge.”

On Saturday, Glencoe (13-1) and Gordo (13-1) will play on Saturday at 5 p.m. Gordo lost on the final play of its 3A semifinal to Dale County last year, while Glencoe lost to Madison Academy in the semifinals. While the game will count as an exhibition, or jamboree, both teams are serious about winning.

“I think it’s great for our town (and) our school to be on a pedestal like this,” said Gordo linebacker Ben Davis, son of former Alabama great Wayne Davis. “I think it sets the bar high for us. We’re used to high expectations in Gordo. We love football, so we’re ready to show we’ve been working hard.”

Carver linebacker Mack Wilson, who will be on display in the Saturday night game against Bob Jones, and Davis rank 1-2 among high school senior recruits, according to 24-7 Sports.

“It’s been nothing but a positive for us,” Gordo coach Ryan Lolley said, “because it’s brought so much attention to our guys and it’s become an opportunity for other guys to get a look. Two other players we have have gotten offers. We just feel like everybody in the country right now is watching our tape because of him.”

Lolley agreed with his star that Saturday’s game “is a great opportunity for our community, our school and our football team to put our best foot forward and show a little of what we’re about.”

Carver, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m., will play an exhibition game as well, but don’t tell Wolverine coach Billy Gresham it doesn’t count. His team is 0-2 in the Champions’ Challenge.

“We want to play to win,” Gresham said. “Not often do you get an opportunity to play a team from up north, especially a team the caliber of Bob Jones in our own backyard in front of the home crowd.”

Kevin Rose has coached Bob Jones to a 57-15 record over the last seven years. Only Hoover has won more games as a 7A program.

“It’s kind of personal,” Wilson said. “Coach said we were 0-2 in Champion’s Challenge. I want to get a win, it’s my senior season, I’m laying everything out on the line.”

And while only one of the three games officially counts, coaches and players agreed the other two games would be played as if they counted, not like a normal preseason jamboree.

“You can go to Gordo on Saturday night or Glencoe on Saturday night and just walk through the town and it’ll probably be like a ghost town,” said Glencoe coach Lee Ozmint, a former Alabama safety from 1986-89. “Both communities will be out there. That’s one of the things I love about high school football. I think high school football in the South is the front porch of your community and our kids understand that. They want to represent what’s best with their community.”


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