By David Knox, Sports Editor
CLAY – The Clay-Chalkville Cougars always set lofty goals. That’s what you get when you’ve won a couple of state championships and finished runner-up in a relatively short football history.
So even though the Cougars had to replace a lot of impressive parts, the Cougars always believed if they could get to the playoffs in 2016, despite the losses and relative youth, they’d have a chance at the ultimate goal – another state crown.
The chance to achieve that goal starts Friday night on the turf of historic Legion Field. The opponent is Ramsay High School of Birmingham, 8-2 and the champions of Class 6A, Region 5.
The Rams of Rueben Nelson have been a rags-to-riches story in Birmingham City Schools football over the past few seasons. Ramsay, on the city’s Southside, opened in 1930 as Southside High School. It was later renamed in honor of industrialist, philanthropist and civic leader Erskine Ramsay. Ramsay, a magnet school and one of just three International Baccalaureate schools in the metro area, dropped football after 1976, when the Rams went 2-7 and was last in Class 4A, Region 9 when4A was the state’s biggest class.
Ramsay claimed state titles in 1934, 1946 and 1953. Thompson “Mutt” Reynolds coached the Rams from 1953-70, when he moved to become Vestavia Hill’s first coach, and its stadium is named for him.
Ramsay revived its program after the urging of parents. There was no place to build a stadium, so the Rams have mostly called Lawson Field on Oporto-Madrid Boulevard home.
Since the revival of the program under Nelson, the Rams have gone 28-25, but this is the first region championship for the Rams. They went 10-2 in 2014, ranked as high as No. 5 in Class 5A and losing only to Parker and Guntersville in round two of the playoffs.
And even though they knocked off Pinson Valley and lost only to Class 7A Mountain Brook and Grayson, Ga. – which beat Hoover as well – there is still some sentiment that Ramsay isn’t for real.
The Rams have never faced Clay-Chalkville.
Readers should be reminded that the 16 points Ramsay beat Pinson by is the closest win the Rams have had. They beat Homewood 40-14 and Shades Valley 42-6.
Quarterback Baniko Harley is 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. Heading into Friday’s loss to Mountain Brook, he’d thrown for almost 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns and added about 400 yards and three touchdowns rushing. But defense is what the Rams hang their hat on. They are giving up just 15.6 points a game, 8.4 in region games.
The Cougars wish they could say that. But they’ve allowed 54 and 56 points in their past two games, one topping the next for most points allowed in a game in school history. The 33.2 ppg allowed is also a dubious record. The Cougars have to do better than that from here on or expect to watch someone else play in the 6A title game for the first time in three years.
The Cougars have turned to Tyrese Sewell at quarterback after an injury to Willie Miller. Running backs Nic Jones and Tony Gurley have replaced injured RB Quentin Young, and Nico Collins, a five-star receiver, is a threat if the quarterbacks can get the ball to him.
Miller is 123-for-204 for 1,684 yards and 18 TDs. Sewell is 17-for-31 for 324 yards and three scores.
Young has 833 yards rushing on a 7.4 per carry average, but a high-ankle sprain has kept him out since the loss to Gardendale. Jones has added 599 yards rushing. Collins has 43 catches for 865 yards and nine touchdowns. Terrill Cole has 31 catches for 488 yards and six TDs and Rod McCloud has 25 for 319 and three scores.
The defense has played well at times but has been exposed too often, giving up 30 or more points five times. The offense simply isn’t good enough to overcome that as it was in 2014 and 2015.
The Cougar and Rams have never met in football. Clay-Chalkville has played one game at Legion Field, the 1999 Class 6A state championship game, where current offensive coordinator Stuart Floyd quarterbacked the Cougars to a 30-27 win over Robert E. Lee.
Kickoff is 7 p.m.