It’s not easy to win a state championship, and coach Darrell Higgins and his assistants — without ever saying the word “championship” — reminded the Mars Hill football players of that as they wrapped up their first official fall practice with sprints on a hot Monday afternoon.
Higgins knows Mars Hill football has a different reputation than it did this time last year, before it had ever won a playoff game — much less a state title. As the players sprinted, he asked them rhetorically how many of their classmates would be playing if football were easy.
“We’d have the whole dadgum school out here!” Higgins said.
The start of fall practice has shared meaning for each high school football team, but it can also be different from place to place given the circumstances at each school.
The state preseason polls released Sunday night by the Alabama Sports Writers Association show Mars Hill as the No. 1 team in the Class 1A rankings — the team's first ever No. 1 ranking.
Higgins said he had a chat with the players about that poll being a reflection of last year’s team and he won’t bring it up again.
“I used Lanett as an example from last year,” Higgins said after practice. “They won the 2A (title in 2017) in very dominant style. They moved down to 1A and they started preseason No. 1, but they didn’t finish up there.
“It really don’t matter where you start. It’s how you finish.”
Across the river, the scene for football practice at Deshler is a little different than it would normally be. First-year coach Randall Martin asked a few players to help clean up at the end of practice, and when someone asked where to put the equipment, Martin said “In the dugout.”
Deshler is practicing in the outfield of the baseball field while the turf field is installed at Howard Chappell Stadium.
The practice field extends 60 yards, with one end in right field and the other end near center field just inside the warning track.
Martin acknowledged the setup isn’t ideal but said his team has plenty of room to do what it needs, and the payoff of an improved stadium is worth it.
“We’re fortunate just to have a good place to practice, man,” Martin said, noting the staff took a day to move all the equipment to the baseball field, which is just on the other side of the school from the football building. “It’s not a big deal.”
The Tigers practiced Monday from about 3:30 until 6:15. They lost about two dozen seniors from last year’s state runner-up and are learning the new concepts Martin is implementing — notably the Wing-T offense.
“It was a long day, but this time of year we’re trying to install stuff so it’s got to be long right now,” Martin said. “We’re out here in helmets. We tried to do a lot of teaching. We got a lot of stuff in this summer. We wanted to go back and re-teach some stuff and then add some stuff while we can.”
Neighboring Sheffield ran its first fall practice much like a summer workout because school doesn’t start until Wednesday.
Coach David Hufstedler said most of the scheme is installed and Monday was about going over fundamental skills and “making sure we’re all on the same page.”
He said it will feel more like fall when school starts, though he cautioned that practice on the first day of school is always challenging because the players haven’t been in class for a while.
“We want to be as routine-oriented as we can,” he said.
Hufstedler, whose Bulldogs finished fourth in Class 2A, Region 7 last year and lost to Aliceville in the first round of the playoffs, said his team will go over third downs and other situational aspects of football Thursday and Friday.
He called Monday “an awesome day” and said it was a continuation of a great offseason for his team, which he’s rewarding players for with a pizza and pool party on Friday.
“You all have had an awesome June, an awesome July,” Hufstedler said he told the team. “Now it’s time to have an awesome August.”