Thompson’s Mark Freeman, Briarwood’s Matthew Forester named Coaches of the Year for phenomenal years

Published 6:30 pm Monday, December 18, 2023

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

The best teams in Shelby County achieved their great success because of the coaches at their helm, and despite many deserving candidates, two separated themselves for how they helped their team reach their full potential.

Those two coaches are Thompson’s Mark Freeman and Briarwood’s Matthew Forester, and they are the 2023 Shelby County Coaches of the Year.

Freeman and Forester took different paths but ultimately, both found success thanks to their improvements.

At the beginning of the season, Freeman knew Thompson was talented enough to win football games like they have since their run of five straight appearances in the state championship game began in 2018.

However, he also knew that the Warriors had a lot of questions that needed to be answered. After losing a veteran offensive line, multiple players had to come in and not only step into those holes, but come together as a group.

In addition, with the defense losing FBS players like 2022 Shelby County Player of the Year Peter Woods, Tony Mitchell and Seth Hampton, Freeman needed breakout players to make up for that loss of production.

That’s before you even get to the quarterback situation, where if he had his mind made up, he certainly wasn’t telling anybody that he would move away from a dual quarterback set of Trent Seaborn and Zach Sims.

Throughout the season, his team made progress on those fronts and more, making strides each week with his reloaded roster and bringing them together to achieve greatness.

At the end of every game, it was evident as always that Freeman had one eye on the playoffs, looking for areas of improvements even in victories.

However, it was the effort that Warriors showed in their lone regular season loss to Clay-Chalkville, the eventual Class 6A state champions, that seemed to convince Freeman that they were on the right track, and he used that setback to spur his team forward to greater success.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, Thompson had become the well-oiled machine that fans have come to expect, not only matching up well with the best teams in the state, but overcoming adversity and early deficits in doing so, as they had to come from behind to beat Vestavia Hills, Hewitt-Trussville, and nearly pulled off a comeback against Central-Phenix City in the title game.

At the end of the road, though, after the Warriors were unable to become the second team in Alabama history to win five straight state championships, Freeman made it clear that those expectations did not equal entitlement and that it took months of hard work to get a group of teenagers to the Super 7 with their only setbacks coming against a pair of state champions.

“It is a task to be these guys’ age and push, and their judgment is a state championship game, much less the game, but winning,” Freeman said after the state championship game. “And until you’ve been there, it’s hard to even understand what it’s like to start the season off when most everybody you’re talking to is, ‘Where’s the state championship at this year?’ That’s OK, though. But there’s a grind.”

That grind and effort to reach his 14th state championship game is the reason Freeman is a Coach of the Year winner.

On the other side, Forester and Briarwood faced one of their biggest challenges as a program: the aftermath of missing the playoffs for the first time in 26 seasons.

Beyond that, the Lions had to move forward without five-star quarterback Christopher Vizzina and multiple other pieces lost to graduation.

However, Forester turned around a 3-7 record in the most Briarwood way possible: reloading in talent, controlling the ball on offense and playing lights out defense.

After early trials by fire where the Lions figured out their identity against Clay-Chalkville and Spain Park, they hit their stride as region play began and only improved as the year went progressed.

Led by All-County First Team selections Luke Dickinson, Jack Cornish and Grey Reebals, Briarwood excelled at every position group to form a complete and dangerous defense that allowed 20 points per game against the top teams in Class 6A.

In fact, while the Lions went 6-6 in 2023, their only losses were to 6A playoff teams in Helena, Benjamin Russell and both Super 7 teams in Clay-Chalkville and Saraland or against 7A opposition.

Over on offense, new quarterback Josh Thompson was given room to grow behind a well-coached, veteran offensive line and evolved into an effective dual threat quarterback.

However, it was his decision to let Luke Reynolds play both ways and pick up the starting running back job four games into the season in addition to his linebacker duties that unlocked another layer of the offense and made the team more dangerous down the stretch.

While many, including myself, weren’t sure Briarwood could succeed against a difficult schedule, Forester was confident in his players all along. Led by a senior class that reached the second round in three of their four seasons, the team became better on and off the field thanks to their hard work and Forester’s leadership.

“What these seniors did was pretty remarkable,” Forester said after their second-round loss to Saraland. “Everybody counted them out. Everybody said it’s not going to happen this year, be tough to even make the playoffs. And they battled. They were within eight points of winning the region championship.

“And it was their will every Friday night. But it’s also the will over the summer, show up, wake up early, do all those things. It’s hard to be a football player. It’s not easy. And then you’ve got nights like this that aren’t easy either, but it’s a representation of life.”

Forester’s ability to bring the best out of his players and turn them into both great players and men of character helped Briarwood succeed and made him more than deserving of the Coach of the Year honor.