Briarwood upsets Class 6A No. 3 Hueytown to claim region championship

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

HUEYTOWN – As a fourth-down pass from Hueytown quarterback Alex Young hit the turf with less than a minute to play, the Briarwood players leapt for joy, coaches hugged and fans screamed with jubilation.

That play ended a 7-0 victory over Class 6A No. 3 Hueytown that led to the Briarwood Lions winning the 2019 Class 5A, Region 4 championship in the first year under head coach Matthew Forester.

“It sure didn’t feel like we had a shot at that at the beginning of the year,” Forester said. “But our guys handled adversity incredibly well from the start of the season to now. You could just see them growing of the course of the year. And you could see myself growing. I’m incredibly proud of the coaching staff and these players for how hard they’ve fought.”

Briarwood entered the game in a three-way tie with Pleasant Grove and Ramsay in the region standings, but a win was set to give the Lions the championship.

And one play made the difference.

Just before the half, freshman quarterback Christopher Vizzina took the snap, sidestepped one tackler that was flying in for a sack, then stepped into a throw. As he released the ball, Blake McKenna had just made a move by a defender and looked back for the ball. McKenna, who was tightly guarded, made an adjustment on the ball and laid out for an amazing 24-yard touchdown catch that put the Lions on top 7-0 heading into the halftime break.

“We wanted to go into halftime with the score close,” Forester said. “The simple fact that we were able to get up on them at halftime, that gave us great confidence.”

That gave one of the best defenses in the state a lead, which is one of the most dangerous problems to have for an opponent, and in the second half, the Lions showed why.

Briarwood continued to instill its will defensively in the third quarter, forcing a punt on every Hueytown drive, while the offense was content to continue running the ball in a physical defensive battle.

“We know they’re a smash mouth football team, but we like to think we are too,” Forester said. “We knew our boys would have to play with great effort and intensity, and while we were sloppy at times, we made sure we did what we set out to tonight.”

Briarwood looked to be well on its way to picking up the win, but in the final quarter, the Golden Gophers found a rhythm running the football.

They were able to put together a strong drive midway through the final period, but eventually, after giving up runs of 12, 14 and 17 yards, the Lions stepped up on their own 20-yard line and forced a fourth-and-7.

Hueytwon decided to kick the field goal with less than five minutes remaining, and on a cold night, the kick hit the crossbar and dinged backwards falling short of the Golden Gophers’ first points of the night.

“This defense willing to grind it out and be disciplined,” Forester said. “They got a little momentum there in the fourth quarter but our guys really responded with some character.”

On the ensuing drive, Briarwood went on to put together a strong drive of its own behind stellar running from Luke Reebals, who was a workhorse all night.

The Lions eventually faced a big fourth-and-3 from the Hueytown 28-yard line with 2:48 to play. Out of a timeout, Briarwood decided to go for it and offensive coordinator Bobby Kerley had a trick up his sleeve to try and ice the game.

Reebals stepped in to run the wildcat and after faking the run, he stepped back and threw a jump pass to McKenna, who caught his second big reception of the night for a first down.

“We practice all kinds of stuff and some of it we never use, and occasionally you see the safety’s eyes and you feel like you got something,” Forester said. “It was a great call by coach Kerley, and I couldn’t be happier of that call.”

The Lions weren’t able to ice the game with a field goal because of penalties pushing them back, but they gave the ball back to Hueytown deep in its own territory with 1:38 left.

After the Golden Gophers picked up one fourth down conversion, they weren’t fortunate enough a second time, as Young’s pass fell short on the next set of downs to preserve Briarwood’s 7-0 victory.

Reebals finished the game with 28 carries for 149 yards on the ground, while also going 1-of-1 for 19 yards through the air. Vizzina ended his night 7-for-16 with 84 yards and one touchdown passing. Reebals also had 32 receiving yards, while McKenna had 57 yards and one touchdown receiving.

With the win, Briarwood will be the one seed out of the region and will now host Marbury in the first round of the playoffs at home on Friday, Nov. 8.