By Johnny Sanders, Sports Editor
CLAY – The 2022 season did not turn out the way that the Clay Chalkville Cougars hoped for. A 7-6 loss to the Parker Thundering Herd in the first round of the playoffs was not the way the Cougars expected to end the year after an 8-1 regular season that saw them only lose to 7A powerhouse Thompson by a score of 17-14.
2023 was deemed a season of redemption. 23demption, to be exact. And these Cougars, despite a few close games, did not falter the entire year, winning all 10 of their regular season games and their three playoff games, including last week’s win over last year’s spoiler, a 38-13 victory for the avenging Cougars.
Below, we will highlight some of the biggest wins of the season for the Cougars.
Clay 31 Briarwood 0:
No better way to start the season than with a shutout win over a premier program in the state? This was an aggravated Cougar team that were bent on taking out their frustrations on the first opponent of the season, regardless of who it was. The Mbakwe at quarterback experiment, though it had its hiccups, started the season on a good note. The Bama commit threw his first touchdown to Jabari Staples in the first quarter to start his quarterback career. The defense held Briarwood to 35 total yards of offense in the game as well, setting the tone for the rest of the year.
Clay 17 Hueytown 3:
The first close game of the season came with the Cougars’ first road trip of the game in week two of the season. Hueytown actually led 3-0 at halftime. Mario Craver returned a kickoff 92 yards in the game to get the Cougars their first touchdown followed by a 40-yard punt return by Marlon Compton to seal the deal for the Cougars.
Clay 46 Pell City 7:
Mbakwe wasted no time getting started in this one as he was responsible for all three first-quarter touchdowns. He found Mario Craver from 44 yards out on the first one and then had touchdown runs of 34 and 59 yards to lead 20-0 after a single quarter of play. Clay did not let up as Craver scored on a 50-yard run on the first play of the quarter followed by a DJ Barber pick-six just seconds later. Mbakwe then scored another one and it was 39-0 at halftime. Pell City scored with 29 seconds to play in the game.
Clay 36 Thompson 33
This is the one that really put the Cougars on the map. Thompson is well-known as a 7A powerhouse, having won multiple state titles recently. The Warriors went up 13-0 early in the game before Mbakwe celebrated his 18th birthday by mounting a comeback win over this powerhouse. The new Cougar quarterback started by scoring back-to-back touchdowns to put his team up 14-13 at halftime. The game went back and forth with Clay actually going up by 10 at one point, 36-26. Thompson’s Trent Seaborn hit a 79-yard touchdown pass to make it 36-33. The Warriors recovered an onside kick and, with three seconds on the clock, a field goal try went wide left and the Cougars got the victory. Mbakwe even played his natural position, cornerback, during the win.
Clay 17 Mountain Brook 13
This was another one of those games where the Cougars didn’t perform on offense like they did at other times during the season. They had to hold on for another close victory, this time against the hungry Spartans from Mountain Brook, last year’s 6A runner-up. Mario Craver tallied a 15-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter to put Clay up 7-0 and make it look like Clay was going to run away with it. But, the Spartans answered in the second quarter with a touchdown of their own and they added a field goal to make it 10-7 Spartans at halftime. Defense was king in the second half with the exception of a three-yard touchdown run by Cole Gamble and a 27-yard touchdown run by Mbakwe to seal the deal at 17-13.
Clay 38 Parker 13
Revenge is a dish best served cold and on a cold Friday night at Jerry Hood Field, the Clay Chalkville Cougars got their revenge on a Parker team that was much improved from the team that beat Clay 7-6 in round one of the 2022 playoffs. Parker came into the game 12-1 with confidence that they could repeat what happened last year. Mbakwe and his band of merry men had other plans. Jaylen put Clay on the board first with a short touchdown run, followed by a long pass to Marlon Compton to put Aaron Osley in position for a 13-yard touchdown to go up 14-0 before Parker knew what hit them. The Thundering Herd got a pick six from Mbakwe to start the second quarter to cut it to 14-7. Mbakwe would then leave the game with what ended up being a concussion during the second quarter. Aaron Frye took over for Mbakwe and played very well, including an 80-yard touchdown run with 5:48 to go in the game to make it 30-13 at the end.
This Friday night, the Cougars will take the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to take on the Saraland Spartans who are also undefeated. It should be quite the game, as Saraland’s closest game was a 31-30 win over Lipscomb Academy out of Tennessee in overtime to begin the season.
Ironically, Jaylen Mbakwe will take the helm at quarterback for Clay on the same field that he will start his collegiate career on in Tuscaloosa.