Week 9 Predictions: Region titles and playoff lives on line as season nears close

Published 9:06 pm Tuesday, October 17, 2023

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

The teams are coming down the home stretch, and it’s time to see who separates themselves from the pack before the finish line.

Nearly every matchup this week has some kind of playoff implications, as Thompson and Helena could wrap up region titles, Pelham and Spain Park are fighting for their playoff lives and others are jockeying for seeding within the region.

The Shelby County Wildcats will wrap up region play this week, as well as both Cornerstone and Coosa Valley in the AISA, but for everyone else, it’s all about taking care of business and setting yourself up well going into the final week of the season.

That is especially true in this week’s Game of the Week, Briarwood vs. Benjamin Russell, but beyond that, each team’s effort this week could determine who will extend their season deeper into November and who will be watching from home.

As usual, let’s start with our Game of the Week and then go classification-by-classification through the 12 matchups in the area during Week 9.

Last Week’s Record: 8-2

Overall: 72-13

 

Briarwood vs. Benjamin Russell (Game of the Week)

After a complete performance in a 38-0 shutout against Calera last week, Briarwood has to feel confident going into a crucial two-game stretch that will determine if they earn a home playoff game and an easier matchup or if they will hit the road at the three or four seed behind Ben Russell and Homewood. The defense especially showed out last week with two safeties to start the game, and that could be a huge confidence-builder as they prepare for a Ben Russell passing game that tore apart Pelham last week thanks to a three-touchdown day from Malcolm Simmons. He is the x-factor of the Wildcats’ offense, and while stopping him doesn’t completely take Ben Russell out of the fight, it’s a good start. Briarwood has shown strengths on both pass coverage and the pass rush, and I expect the Lions to show that on the field come Friday. Meanwhile, the Briarwood offense is just clicking into gear now behind Josh Thompson and Cooper Higgins. It feels like every week this unit is getting better and weapons like Sawyer Click and Caleb Keller are developing, and that bodes well for the Lions in a game where they will need every yard against a tough Ben Russell defense. In the end, I think this will be a toss-up, which means Briarwood will have to draw from their close games against Pelham and Helena. I believe the Lions defense will make the difference and win down the stretch thanks to a couple of big stops powered by their home crowd. Briarwood 28, Benjamin Russell 21.

Spain Park at Hewitt-Trussville

Spain Park has plenty of reasons to be happy where they are: the Jags have secured their best seven-game start since their last playoff appearance in 2017 and are still in the hunt for the playoffs. However, they also have reasons for concern, namely, that they have to win out and get help to get into the playoffs, and the mistakes that littered last week’s win over Chelsea. The Jags have a lot to clean up from that game, namely, the penalties and personal fouls that kept Chelsea drives alive. Coach Tim Vakakes didn’t mince words or deflect blame postgame when talking about those errors, which gives me the impression that the coaches will address that this week and the team should be better on that front going forward. They won’t just need to limit mistakes against Hewitt, though. The Jags will need to come with their best shot and play their best game of the season on offense and defense to have a chance to beat the top-five Huskies. Everything was trending in a positive direction going into the Chelsea game last week, and had the Jags taken care of business in a more convincing way against the Hornets, I would be more optimistic about Spain Park’s chances this week. While I do expect some form of a bounce-back this week as the Jags know the stakes, it will be outweighed by a Hewitt team riding high off a double-digit demolition of Vestavia Hills and the momentum and talent they have coming into this matchup. The Jags will likely look forward to Oak Mountain next week with their sights on a win and hope for help elsewhere to improve their chances of making the playoffs. Hewitt-Trussville 48, Spain Park 10.

Thompson vs. Tuscaloosa County

Even though Thompson has won the last four Class 7A state championships, one goal has eluded them since 2020: a region championship. The Warriors can resolve that with a win over Tuscaloosa County to clinch the region title. Thompson should be heavily favored in this matchup after the Wildcats dropped back-to-back home games by double-digits to Spain Park and Hoover, two teams who are currently battling it out for the four-seed. The Warriors, on the other hand, are flying high and showing little signs of slowing down. Jayden Davis and Tyler Hicks should be able to blow up running plays at the line of scrimmage, while Anquon Fegans and Kaleb Harris will likely limit the impact that Tuscaloosa County is able to make downfield. If the defense holds strong early, I expect this offense to continue to gear up into playoff form behind great nights from Trent Seaborn, Kolby Hearn, Deuce Oliver, AJ Green and Michael Dujon. At this point, the only thing stopping the Warriors ahead of the playoffs are themselves, but coach Mark Freeman always keeps his teams focused on the task at hand, and that should lead to a region championship this week. Thompson 45, Tuscaloosa County 13.

Chelsea vs. Hoover

The good news is, while Chelsea was obviously boosted by Spain Park errors in last week’s loss, they looked like an improved team from the one I saw in Week 1 against Helena. The offense was a lot more complete and less reliant on Emerson Russell to make plays, and the defense forced punts and even a turnover to get Spain Park off the field quickly. The bad news is Hoover has seemingly found its stride after a historically poor start to the season thanks to back-to-back double-digit wins over Oak Mountain and Tuscaloosa County. The Bucs have all of the momentum going into this matchup, which complicates an already tricky scenario for Chelsea. I think the Hornets will find success at times against Hoover, but how much success and whether it’s enough to win is a more difficult question. I expect this matchup to reflect less on where Chelsea is as a team and more on Hoover as a team just now clicking into gear and motivated to wrap up the four-seed ahead of a tough test against Thompson next week at the Met. Hoover 35, Chelsea 14.

Oak Mountain at Vestavia Hills

While both teams could use a bounce-back win after last week’s results, Vestavia is definitely in a worse situation after a 55-27 loss to Hewitt-Trussville that shocked many in the area and effectively put Hewitt in the driver’s seat for the two seed. If the Rebels come in angry and motivated, that is bad news for Oak Mountain after their offense managed just one trip to the end zone last week late in the game against Thompson’s reserves. Vestavia’s defense is one of the best in the state when it’s firing on all cylinders, but it hasn’t been since the bye as the Rebels allowed 21 to Chelsea before the 55-point bombshell that Hewitt dropped. Oak Mountain’s best chance in this game is if those results hang over for a third straight week to let the offense get on the board, but the Eagles defense will have a hard time against a Vestavia offense led by John Paul Head that has been near lights out. If the Rebels can post 27 against a solid Hewitt defense while still losing by four touchdowns, their offense could make it a long night for Oak Mountain, which I expect to be the difference regardless of whether Vestavia’s defense shows up or not. Vestavia Hills 55, Oak Mountain 7.

Pelham at Homewood

It’s do-or-die time for the Pelham Panthers. The Panthers need to win to stay alive in the chase for the playoffs, especially against Homewood, a team that they will battle with for one of the final two seeds in the region. To do so, they will need to bounce back after a disappointing second half against Benjamin Russell where the Panthers fell suspect to the Wildcats’ pass game. They have a better chance to recover here against a Homewood attack that, while still dangerous in its own right, is less of a test with 25.1 PPG. In addition to an improved effort on defense, we still have yet to see a truly diversified Pelham offense beyond Clayton Mains making plays on the ground and in the air. Extra help from the backfield would go a long way to take advantage of a Patriots defense that has a habit of letting opponents hang around even when they shouldn’t, as seen by 21 points allowed to Calera and 13 to Chilton County. Pelham’s best chance at a win will be to attack that defense with a two-pronged offense on the ground and in the air, ideally with some running help to back up Mains. But more than anything, Pelham will need to overcome Homewood’s momentum, which is completely in its favor with four straight wins after losses to John Carroll, Vestavia Hills and Helena to open the season, which are all three playoff teams in their respective classifications. I think that even though Pelham will come hungry and motivated, Homewood’s confidence and momentum will show and make the difference this week. Homewood 28, Pelham 21.

Helena vs. Calera

It may be hard to believe now, but the last time these two teams met, they were in very different situations. Calera’s win one year ago in quadruple overtime sent Helena down an 0-3 spiral to end the season and lose out on the playoffs on a tiebreaker to the Eagles. Now, the Huskies haven’t lost a game since the end of the 2022 season, and Calera has yet to win a game in the same timeframe. The Huskies can wrap up a region championship with a win and a Benjamin Russell loss, which would be historic for the program and a massive statement going into the postseason. While there is still a chance regardless of whether Helena comes out on top that next week’s trip to Benjamin Russell will decide the region title, the Huskies know how important it is that they take care of business here. Beyond that, coach Richie Busby and the players are all well aware of what happened from this point on last year after a 6-1 start, and they will be careful to avoid the same pitfalls. But if there’s a difference between this year’s meeting and last year’s, it’s that Helena has shown dominance on offense, defense and special teams and can win battles or blowouts, and Calera has been susceptible to nearly every offense they have faced and the young pieces just haven’t come together to make plays yet. Expect a big Helena win that, regardless of the result at Briarwood, will give the Huskies even more momentum as they prep for the postseason. Helena 55, Calera 7.

Shelby County vs. Marbury

Shelby County’s win over Selma couldn’t have been bigger, and now, the Wildcats are in the driver’s seat to take the three seed after struggling to open region play. The fight that they showed in a close game, Bradley Horton’s effort on the ground and the big turnovers on defense have me feeling optimistic about Shelby County going forward. That was the complete performance that we needed to see from the Wildcats, and despite the game being closer than expected, the result at the end of the day is a positive one that they can generate momentum off of. Especially since Marbury has just one region win on their record, the Wildcats’ momentum from last week should carry them to a win again here. I expect the defense to make the difference again, but I believe the offense can use the success they found last week to play to their strengths and realize its final form ahead of the playoffs. With the potential for an easier first round matchup on the line, expect coach Zeb Ellison to have his team ready to compete and take care of business. Shelby County 28, Marbury 14.

Montevallo vs. Holt

Montevallo is in the driver’s seat to secure one of the final three playoff spots in Class 4A, Region 3, and a win against Holt would set the Bulldogs up well towards that goal. The Bulldogs have historically dominated this matchup against the Ironmen, and that looks set to continue this year as Holt has only scored in one game this season and have allowed 43.6 points per game, including 54, 55 and 48 in its last three. That points to another confidence-building performance from the Montevallo defense. The Bulldogs should also find success running the ball to get big plays and score while limiting Holt’s time on the field alongside three-and-outs from the defense. With American Christian looming next week in a big game that could determine the two seed out of the region and a home playoff game, Montevallo should come out, take care of business early on homecoming and turn its attention towards preparing towards an ACA team that has given them trouble in recent history. Montevallo 35, Holt 0.

Vincent at Isabella

Vincent is still positioned well in the playoff picture with just one region loss, but their final two games against Isabella and Thorsby will determine which of those three will get a home playoff game and who will hit the road for a tougher matchup. It starts with a trip to Isabella this week which will likely be one of the Jackets’ toughest tests of the season. Both teams will come in motivated and hungry, but I believe Vincent will still have the edge here. The running game has flourished no matter if it’s Rykelus Robertson, Jayden Roberts, Casen Fields or Quinterrius Robertson in the backfield thanks to the talent back there as well as on the offensive line. Vincent has shown great signs in the passing game, but even if it relies on the run game, the Jackets should find success on that end. The defense will need to play its best game of the season, especially now that former All-County talent Ray Albright is out for the year, to hold off Isabella and secure the win. It may be tight, but Vincent’s experience in close games should win out here. Vincent 28, Isabella 20.

Cornerstone at Evangel Montgomery

Last week’s win over Meadowview was historic for the Chargers as they wrapped up their first region title since moving to 8-man by way of a school record for points and win margin. Cornerstone will be riding a big wave of confidence after that 72-6 victory, and even though the Chargers have taken care of everything that they can in the playoff picture, they still have something to play for in an undefeated region record. Evangel Montgomery may have won the state championship last year, but the Lions have struggled to contain opposing offenses this season and have fallen behind in games as a result. With one of the most high-powered offenses around paying a visit, expect the same as Cornerstone jumps out to a big lead early that they can control on the defensive end. If the Chargers can earn another dominant defensive performance this week, that will do wonders for their confidence going into a playoff run where they will likely rely on that side of the ball more than ever. Cornerstone 60, Evangel Montgomery 12.

Coosa Valley at Southern Academy

For the first time this season, Coosa Valley is back in the win column and in a big way. The Rebels got the complete performance that I’ve been looking for all season amidst the flashes that they’ve shown on both sides of the ball, and 55 points on offense behind 478 all-purpose yards from Konnor Steele and a pair of interceptions is how you do that. While Abbeville Christian has struggled this season, the Rebels can still pull momentum from that win into a win-or-go-home situation against Southern Academy. Even though Coosa Valley is winless in region play, a win here over the one-region win Cougars would send the Rebels to the postseason. They will have to overcome a 34-0 loss from last year’s showdown to do so, and while I see the defense showing up like they usually do, the offense has been too inconsistent for me to trust it to make up that point gap. However, that win last week could just be the spark that Steele and the offense needed, and we’ll see if that proves to be the case this week even though a win is still unlikely. Southern Academy 22, Coosa Valley 8.