FLORENCE — Three teams in the TimesDaily’s coverage area enter the high school football playoffs undefeated.
There’s Muscle Shoals, which features multiple Power 5 college players and leads Class 6A in scoring and scoring defense.
There’s Mars Hill, the reigning 1A state champion, which has won 20 games in a row – most of them comfortably.
And there’s Red Bay, perhaps the least hyped of the three but just as worthy of your attention.
The Tigers are a playoff regular, having qualified in 20 of the last 21 seasons. The one miss? Two years ago, when many of these juniors and seniors were freshmen and sophomores being asked to contribute.
“It really set a fire under us for last year and this year, to just come back and exceed the expectations and just keep on going,” junior quarterback Jalen Vinson said.
And they’ve kept on going. In Class 2A, full of strong teams in the state’s northern half, Red Bay has made itself a factor with the versatile Vinson at quarterback, a strong run game and a standout defense.
Coach Michael Jackson is glad to see hard work rewarded. He hopes the rewards aren’t finished yet. The Tigers (10-0) open the playoffs Friday at home against Cedar Bluff (7-3).
“I knew that we had the makeup to do it,” Jackson said of the unbeaten regular season. “But the thing that’s kind of taken them over the top is their character and the way they’ve worked all year.
“This has been one of the best groups I’ve ever worked with as far as going to practice. It’s gone by really fast for us, so we’re excited about next week.”
Red Bay advanced to the second round of last year’s 2A playoffs, beating Winston County in overtime in the first round. Winston County scored a touchdown in overtime, but the Tigers’ Cam McKinney – a 6-foot, 241-linebacker – stopped Winston County’s conversion attempt and the margin was 14-8.
Colbie King scored a touchdown for Red Bay, and Kolby Bragwell ran for the winning conversion. Ohatchee knocked Red Bay out of the second round, 42-6.
Though many standouts of that team returned, Bragwell graduated and Colbie King tore his ACL in the 2019 season opener against Colbert Heights.
Senior running back Colyn Humphres needed a new partner in the backfield, so Colbie’s brother Hunter King moved from defense to running back.
King has run for over 800 yards this season. Humphres has also been a consistent producer and says the two are “in sync.”
“If somebody needs a play off, we’ll come in, we’ll get after it, let him have his shine, then we’ll go back in,” Humphres said. “We’ll rotate around. We’re just getting after it.”
It was also an offseason of transition for Vinson, who played as a receiver early last year before breaking the wrist below his dominant hand. He took over as quarterback this year and has given Red Bay’s offense a different look with his running and passing ability.
“I played quarterback all my life, so it kind of comes natural to me. I’m a leader,” Vinson said. “After my injury, I just had to work back and work hard this summer, with 7 on 7s and stuff.”
Vinson has passed for nearly 1,500 yards – approximately half going to Arden Hamilton, who did not play football last year – a stark contrast from the run-heavy offense Red Bay previously used.
“Jalen’s had a great year,” Jackson said. “He kind of opens up our offense and can do some things we’ve been wanting to do. This year we’re a lot more multiple than we’ve been in the past. Last year we were in that short-yardage set most of the time because we didn’t have the weapons.”
As strong as Red Bay is on offense, however, the defense might be even more impressive.
The Tigers rank fourth in Class 2A statewide in scoring defense, allowing 10.9 points per game. They shut out Colbert Heights, Hatton and Tharptown. They held the other seven opponents to 21 points or fewer.
McKinney and Gavin Edgmon have been among the leading tacklers at linebacker, but 6-1, 245-pound Logan Scott leads a mean defensive line and the Tigers have seen growth from young players in the secondary like Kaleb Bragwell and Elijah Luster.
There are only two seniors starting on defense, but many of the Tigers on defense are three-year starters.
“They’ve gotten better and better the whole time,” Jackson said. “We’ve had a nucleus of that group that’s been playing for a long time.”
Red Bay’s most impressive win might have been a 16-10 victory Sept. 13 over Addison. That game is the reason Red Bay is a No. 1 seed this week and Addison a No. 2, and it was a sharp turnaround from Addison’s 39-12 win last year.
“Last year was pretty rough going over there,” Vinson said. “But to come back and beat them this year, I remember the celebration after was amazing. That was kind of our hump. We got over our hump, and we were able to finish this year out 10-0.”
That No. 1 seed matches Red Bay up against Cedar Bluff, which opened its season with five straight wins. Cedar Bluff has a history similar to Red Bay and probably won’t be intimidated.
Cedar Bluff has made the playoffs 28 of the past 30 years. Since 2001, Cedar Bluff has missed the playoffs only once and failed to advance past the first round only one other time (2018).
“They’ve got a good football team. We’ve got to go one week at a time and kind of keep proving to us what we can do,” Jackson said.
“We know the 2A is stacked in the north, we know that. Most of the better teams are in the north, and so we know that we’re going to cross with people that look just like us in the future. So we’ve got to be prepared to be able to do whatever we’ve got to do that night to win.”
Fyffe, Collinsville, Ohatchee, Ranburne and Aliceville are among the examples, but first Red Bay must take care of a Cedar Bluff team that opened the year with an impressive 14-12 win over Spring Garden and whose three losses are all to playoff teams.
Jackson, in his sixth year leading Red Bay, said this team has been one of his best in terms of being dedicated to getting stronger in the weight room and practicing well. Red Bay has stayed reasonably healthy, and it has performed well on offense, defense and special teams.
It’s time for “the second half of the season,” as Jackson called it. Red Bay hasn’t reached the quarterfinals since 2007, but to this point in 2019 there’s a lot to like about the Tigers.
“It takes a lot to get to where these guys are,” Jackson said.