Mars Hill will play Lanett, a public school located on the Alabama-Georgia border, in the Class 1A championship game at 3 p.m. today. The game will be at Jordan-Hare Stadium on the Auburn University campus.
Mars Hill (14-0) puts its 24-game win streak on the line against a Lanett team (13-0) that also moved from Class 2A to 1A before the 2018 season. (Both teams are also called the Panthers.)
To learn more about Lanett, we contacted Jordan Hill, who covers high school sports for the Opelika-Auburn News. You can follow his reporting on Twitter @oanewspreps.
TimesDaily: Last week's 42-35 win over Sweet Water was Lanett's first close game since early September. Did you learn something about the team that night based on what it had to do to win? What were the keys to Lanett's victory?
Jordan Hill: Lanett is no stranger to winning big games, but the fact the Panthers never panicked is a sure sign that they have a legitimate chance of ending the season as champions. Lanett's game at Sweet Water – which was about three hours away – was the team's first road game of the postseason, and there was no sense of panic when the game turned into a shootout.
The Panthers won by generating big play after big play, which was not necessarily a given due to the competition. Lanett's defense had carried the entire team early in the year when the Panthers were getting adjusted to new offensive coordinator Stephen Jackson; now, it's evident the offense is firing on all cylinders when it matters most.
TD: Lanett quarterback Kristian Story recently became the AHSAA's career touchdown leader, and he threw five touchdown passes last week. What are the Alabama commit's top skills, and how has he improved over the course of the season? What makes him special?
JH: As simple as it may sound, Kristian's best skill may be his poise in the pocket. His father, Lanett head coach Clifford Story, said that early on he knew his son could be special at quarterback because he continued to look downfield even as he rolled out for a potential scramble. Kristian started this season slow after having shoulder surgery in the offseason, and his arm strength was not up to par early on. He said he could feel himself coming back to form by about the third game, and since then his throwing arm has been stronger than ever before. Story is just as dangerous throwing the ball as he is when he shows off his elusive speed, and Mars Hill Bible's defenders will be in for a long afternoon if they leave receivers uncovered because he might take off running.
TD: Lanett's defense shut out five opponents this year and averages 10 points allowed per game. What is Lanett's defensive style, and what makes the team tough defensively?
JH: Lanett's defense is one that finds weaknesses on the opposing offense's side and exploits them again and again. The Panthers are prone to capitalizing on any mistakes, and any turnovers they create are often followed by long returns that have often ended in the end zone. Being a 1A program, it's no surprise that Lanett's top skill players on offense also make up the bulk of its defense. Lanett's defense plays just like its offense – exceedingly fast with intent to make plays that push their opponent past the point of contending for the victory.
TD: In addition to Story, who are some other key Lanett players we should watch for in the championship game?
JH: On offense, receivers Tray Abner and Larontavious Hurston have been Kristian Story's two go-to guys in the passing game. Running back BJ Smith has gotten involved on the ground when needed. On the defensive side, Story has made some big plays at linebacker, the spot he might wind up playing at Alabama. Outside of Story, defensive lineman Eric McCants and defensive back Kaderius Zackery have been huge for the team. Story's younger brother, Kaden, has shown true flashes at defensive end and already has a scholarship offer from Maryland.
TD: Lanett won the 2017 2A state championship but then lost to Maplesville in last year's 1A quarterfinals. How much do players/coaches talk about last year? Does that disappointment seem to linger in their minds?
JH: There's no sugarcoating it with Lanett's coaches and players: Last year's loss in the quarterfinals was a disappointment. Lanett head coach Clifford Story has said he felt the players thought it would be a cakewalk since the Panthers had moved down to Class 1A from 2A, but the Maplesville Red Devils showed them the hard way that the AHSAA's lowest classification has plenty of talented teams.
The players – especially the 10-man senior class – have talked about returning to championship form this season, and the team has followed through on those aspirations through four postseason games. Kristian Story has said his two AHSAA records are nice, but winning another championship is what he is really wanting to leaving Lanett with.