After coaching Straughn to a surprisingly close, 35-26 victory over Wellborn in Saturday’s Champion’s Challenge in Cramton Bowl, Taylor once again comes away with respect.
“I’ll be honest with you, those are some tremendous athletes over there,” the former Andalusia running back said. “Then to have to match up against a team that was running players on and off the field like we were?”
If ever a result demanded perspective, it was Wellborn’s showing on a statewide stage Saturday night.
The fourth-ranked team in Class 2A led 3A’s fifth-ranked team in the first quarter, was tied in the second, came within a goal-line stand of retaking the lead in the third and stood within two points at the halfway point of the fourth.
The team with the 37-man roster — and missing starting center/defensive tackle Jaleel Burton, who had his wisdom teeth removed — forced the 74-man team to trot out its starters in the fourth quarter of a glorified jamboree.
Assuming preseason rankings and Saturday’s eye test were right, we could be seeing the return of heady days at Wellborn, a school that once did it with Straughn-sized rosters.
Taylor remembers those days well. He was a blocking back on the Andalusia team that edged Wellborn 7-0 in 3A championship game at Wellborn in 1977, back when Alabama had just four classifications.
He got a taste of Wellborn’s hard-nosed, blue-collar football past 36 years ago, and he got a taste of the hard-nosed, blue-collar present Saturday.
“They got after us,” Taylor said. “Even when they got tired, they were still playing hard and getting after us.”
Jamboree or not, Saturday’s game meant a lot to Wellborn. Body language told the story as well as the surprisingly close score.
It showed with players like D.J. Rhoden, wrestling Straughn running back Lane Sirmon from hash marks to sideline before pulling the ball free to set up Wellborn’s final touchdown.
It showed in Landon Machristie’s visible reluctance to come off the field when his left calf cramped in the third quarter. He limped back in the field a few plays later.
“They couldn’t drag me off that field,” said Machristie, who plays quarterback, middle linebacker and special teams.
Playing through cramps and fatigue is not new for Machristie, who started at fullback and middle linebacker as a sophomore in 2012, but the junior got the gravity of Saturday’s occasion for Wellborn.
“It meant a lot,” he said. “It was a big honor, getting invited down here. Only six teams in the state get invited here. It’s just a real big honor.”
Especially considering how far Wellborn’s program had fallen before fifth-year head coach Jeff Smith arrived in 2009.
In between the time that Smith played for Mike Battles in Wellborn’s 5A heyday and returned as head coach, annexation and other factors shrank the Panthers to a struggling 3A program. They dropped to 2A after Smith’s arrival.
Wellborn went 2-18 in the two seasons before Smith left 6A Hueytown and quarterback Jameis Winston to answer momma’s call. One couldn’t pick a school less likely to get invited to play in AHSAA’s signature preseason showcase.
But the Panthers have made the playoffs four consecutive years. In 2012, they won their first home playoff game since 1995.
Saturday, they played in Cramton Bowl and pushed a team with double their roster.
“We had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Smith said. “I think you have to look at it as a positive.
“… The whole thing is, our players, our school and our community are getting respect statewide, and I’m very proud to be a part of that.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.