The Sons of Montevallo
By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor
Getting to Montevallo takes a little bit of effort. The sleepy hamlet in southern Shelby County is a lazy, 20-minute drive from I-65 outside of Calera down U.S. 25, and is tucked neatly into a landscape that is reminiscent of a Normal Rockwell painting and has a population of roughly 7,000. It isn’t a place people pass through necessarily, even though it may feel like that to outsiders, but a place people go for a specific purpose. Whether it’s for sport, art, school, work or anything in between. Whatever the reason, no one ends up in Montevallo by accident.
In the fall of 2016 this will not change. Few people still will be in Montevallo without reason, although one of those reasons will be steeped in more excitement and optimism than usual. In the wake of a 2015 football season that saw unique and almost unparalleled success across the long history of the Bulldog program, there is now some statewide buzz surrounding fall Friday nights in the city. As a result, there is palpable momentum surrounding this team for the first time in quite a while.
Zac Oden, Tre’Shawn Brown, Ahmad Edwards and Daqwan Bryant are the harbingers of that momentum. These four will be Montevallo’s top playmakers this fall, and are at the forefront of a new and improved mentality seeping through the Bulldogs’ locker room walls. They are an undeniably and instantly likeable bunch off the field, and are four of the most exciting players in the county to watch on it.
Oden, Brown, Edwards and Bryant are close. They have all lived in Montevallo for most of their lives, (Ahmad, arriving in the second grade, is the most recent addition to the group) and it’s easy to see that their friendship runs deep. All have played football for as long as they can remember, and there is a level of comfort and easiness between them that cannot be faked, indicative of the years they have spent together.
When talking about their favorite memories from their football careers, each shares a moment that involves another in the group. Daqwan’s favorite memory from his playing days so far doesn’t even include himself at all. With a grin slapped on his face, he relays the story of simply watching Tre’Shawn lay a vicious hit on Sipsey Valley’s gigantic running back last season in a game the Bulldogs won 21-0.
Tre’Shawn responds by saying he remembers vividly watching Daqwan take a screen pass 60-plus yards to the house in last season’s opener against Locust Fork. Montevallo won that game 28-27 in overtime.
“He had like four dudes hanging all over him, and he just bounced right off and took it,” Brown says.
They have grown up with each other in a small, tight-knit community, sharing experiences on and off the field, and now the foursome is set to start their final football season together, a season which has a chance to be one of the best in the history of the school.
Oden, the quarterback, is coming off a stellar junior year in which he threw for nearly 2,400 yards and 29 touchdowns. He has started every game since he was a freshman, which makes him one of the most experienced prep gunslingers in the country heading into 2016, and he is ready to leave a lasting impression on the school and community he has spent his life in.
Edwards and Bryant are a pair of bright-eyed, attentive junior wide outs and defensive backs. They are sharp, quick to smile, and even when asked not to, can’t help themselves from calling a 24-year-old writer “sir,” a natural byproduct of respectable Southern upbringings. Edwards is tall, standing a shade over six feet, while Bryant is shorter and more compact. The two are lightning-quick in the open field, and combined to catch 78 balls for 1,332 yards and 21 touchdowns as sophomores a season ago, and combine to make one of the best receiving tandems around, to make no mention of their defensive exploits, which are also numerous.
Brown was a First Team ASWA All-State selection last season at strong safety as a junior. His 128 tackles from his safety spot were the most in Shelby County, and he is as tenacious and dynamic as they come in the defensive backfield. The senior relishes contact, and his eyes light up when talking about some of his more memorable hits over the years. This year, Brown is going to play both ways and will work as the third receiver alongside Edwards and Bryant on offense, bringing another talented and dangerous arrow into the receiving quiver. When asked why the new Montevallo coaching staff is moving him to the offensive side of the ball, Brown’s answer is simple.
“To make plays,” he says with a smile.
There will be other elements to this Montevallo team, of course. Caleb Cottingham at running back and Tavarius Holman at the fourth receiver spot are both primed for big seasons, and linebacker Jackson Hughes will undoubtedly have a strong impact on the defense once again, but these four are the unquestioned backbone of this bunch. Edwards, Brown and Bryant are all moving into their third year of big-time varsity minutes, while Oden is in his fourth. Those countless snaps have brought about a familiarity that will be invaluable this year.
“The best part about it is I’ve had these two for three years now,” Oden says, nodding toward Bryant and Edwards. “I’ve been fortunate in my time here to have receivers who can go and make plays, whether it’s on a two-yard screen play or an arrow, guys who can turn anything into a 60-yard touchdown. These two are for sure the best I’ve played with.”
“His leadership is key,” Bryant says in return of his quarterback. “He’s our guy.”
The Montevallo locker room has completely bought in to the idea that this team can be special. New head coach Brandon Wilcox and his staff, along with the strong senior leadership from guys like Oden and Brown, has cultivated a mentality where guys now want to work out, they want to engage and want to get better. But this is somewhat of a new phenomenon for the Bulldogs. For the longest time, the prevailing emotion in the locker room was one of apathy.
“There’s been a change in mentality,” Oden says. “With the way you talk, the way you work and how you play on the field. It used to be a, ‘We’re not going to listen to what the coach says, we’re going to do our own thing’ kind of deal.”
“Before, it was just a ‘We don’t care’ mentality,” Brown adds.
Tena Niven, who was born and raised in Montevallo and has taught in the Montevallo school system since 2000, backed up that statement. Niven grew up going to Montevallo High School football games, and has been the Voice of the Bulldogs for the last five seasons. When she started calling football games, she began to notice a difference in how her alma mater played from what she had experienced growing up.
“It was almost miserable for a few years there,” Niven said. “We weren’t competing, we weren’t fighting. Guys would lay down in the middle of the field acting hurt. It wasn’t fun to watch. That’s not what you want to see.”
While apathy and complacency permeated the Montevallo locker room, that was only part of the story. From 2000-2014, Montevallo put up an incredibly pedestrian 56-94 record, averaging less than four wins per year. Were all of those teams lazy? Of course not. As Niven said, the talent level at a smaller school can be boom or bust depending on the year, and for a while Montevallo simply didn’t have the athletes or numbers to be consistently competitive.
In 2016 however, the talent at Montevallo is as strong as its been in quite a while. Not only is Montevallo’s football team coming off a great year, so are the basketball and baseball teams. On the hardwood the Bulldogs marched to a 22-9 record and made an appearance in the 4A Sweet Sixteen last season while the baseball team went as far as the 4A semifinals. Ahmad, Daqwan and Tre’Shawn all contributed to the basketball team’s success while Zac and Ahmad helped lead the baseball team as well. Oden was the only athlete in the county last year to be named a First Team All-County selection in both football and baseball. Daqwan also runs track in the spring as well. Needless to say, these four stay busy.
Montevallo is a small school, and it is not uncommon for the athletes at smaller schools to play multiple sports out of necessity. All four are committed to football, and all say football is their first love, however each still enjoy taking part in their other sports. Ahmad however is slightly unique among most prep athletes today since he plays all three major sports. He is never out of season, and has not chosen to specialize in one over the other, as an increasing number of high schoolers do just that. His reasoning? He’s simply having too much fun.
“They’re all still fun to me, all three of them are,” he says. “My dad has always told me when one of them gets too stressful or when I get tired of one, that’s when you give it up. That hasn’t happened yet, I like playing all of them.”
While this bunch is talented and has had success, all of those accomplishments, all of the wins and all of the awards that Montevallo racked up a year ago, all of that is in the past now. 2016 is a blank slate, with new challenges and opportunities waiting for them. The question now becomes can the Bulldogs build on this newfound success and continue to progress?
When asked what the expectation is for this season, the response from the group is simple and succinct.
“We’ve worked so hard,” Edwards says, and then pauses. “We want to be state champs.”
The other three chime in, adding their support to that statement.
Whether a state championship is in the stars or not for this bunch obviously remains to be seen. Montevallo has moved back down to the 3A class this year after spending two years in 4A ball, but now moves in to a region with Gordo, Oakman and American Christian Academy, all of which are top contenders in the classification. The Bulldogs pulled in a No. 7 preseason rank in the class, while Gordo was ranked second in the class in the preseason and Oakman was ranked 10th. While the roster is more talented than it has been in a while, the schedule has also become much tougher as well.
Whatever happens this year on the gridiron, there will come a time soon enough where this season will end, and all four will, seemingly in the blink of an eye, have graduated. They will leave their jerseys for fresh faces to take, and move on with their lives. Before that happens, though, before the passing of time has left this season as nothing more than a memory, the sons of Montevallo have one more ride left to take together, and they’ll see if they can’t make some history along the way.
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