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ALL-CHEROKEE COUNTY FOOTBALL OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Austin’s record-setting season crucial for Spring Garden

Spring Garden senior wide receiver Cooper Austin. Photo Special to WEIS Radio.

SPRING GARDEN – When he was younger, Spring Garden senior Cooper Austin never imagined himself playing football.

Basketball was his thing.

He never played peewee football, but he did play on the sidelines during high school games when he was younger just for fun.

But then everything changed during Austin’s seventh grade year.

“I was like ‘Hey, I’m going to try this out and see if I like it,’” Austin said. “I fell in love with it, fell in love with Coach (Jason) Howard, (assistant) Coach (Damon) McDonald, everything.”

The Spring Garden community is certainly glad Austin decided to play football. As it turns out he’s a pretty good wide receiver.

Austin caught 143 passes for 3,113 yards and 49 touchdowns for his varsity career, which ranks him 18th on the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s career receiving yards list. He fell just 16 yards short of 17th place, which is held by former Etowah receiver Toderick Malone (118 catches for 3,129 yards and 30 touchdowns from 1989-91).

Austin’s receiving yardage is second in Cherokee County football history behind Cedar Bluff’s Josh Moten. Moten had 218 catches for 4,272 yards from 1999-02 and is second in the state’s career receiving history behind Wadley’s Terrell Zachery (4,410 yards from 2002-05).

This past football season, Austin caught 67 passes for 1,389 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Panthers (12-1). That places him 16th all-time in receiving yards for a season, according to AHSAA records.

Earlier this month, Austin earned a first-team wide receiver spot on the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 2A All-State Football Team. And now, Austin has another honor to add to his resume: WEIS Radio’s All-Cherokee County Offensive Player of the Year.

“I’ve always dreamed of getting the basketball MVP (in Cherokee County), but I never thought about the football MVP,” Austin said. “It’s an honor. I think Coach Howard and the team depended on me. They kind of made the offense around me to let me make plays. I just kind of accepted it and stepped up to the bar.”

Austin did more than just step up to the bar. He raised it to another level.

“You never would’ve thought Cooper Austin would be the No. 2 all-time receiver in the county from Spring Garden. We used to not throw that many balls in two years,” Howard said. “We’ve changed our (offensive) sets now, and Cooper is one of the main reasons we’ve moved to that.

“When you put him on the list with Damion Chambers, Jeff Bullen, Josh Moten, those are elites. I had the pleasure of coaching Josh too when I was at Cedar Bluff and got to see his season when he did all that. For him (Austin) to be No. 2 on that (county) list is something special.”

Howard, this year’s choice for All-Cherokee County Football Coach of the Year, said he realized early on Austin could be a special football player.

“I told (Austin’s father and Spring Garden basketball coach Ricky) Rat (Austin) and I told (mother) Dana (Austin) that I wanted Cooper not to have pressure, for him to enjoy football,” Howard said. “I knew the type of pressure he was going to have in basketball, but I wasn’t going to put that pressure on him in football. I wanted him to just enjoy playing football. By his eighth grade year, he had stepped up to the point where he enjoyed football more than he did basketball. When he started showing that commitment, then we started putting more and more stuff on him.

“He answered the call. Really, in seventh and eighth grade, I knew he was going to be special. I didn’t know how special, but he is really, really special.”

What makes this season even more special for Austin is he caught all his passes from two different quarterbacks, brothers Chaz and Chapel Pope.

Senior Chaz Pope was originally the starter at the beginning of the season, but suffered a season-ending leg injury during the Hokes Bluff game back on Sept. 24. Sophomore Chapel Pope was thrust into the starting quarterback role after his brother’s injury.

Despite the change, Austin never missed a beat.

“Chaz and Chapel are probably the two hardest working people in Spring Garden, and I think they had a lot of confidence in me,” Austin said. “They kind of listen to me if I say ‘Hey, put more air under the ball.’ It was just getting that connection, getting some extra throws in. Chaz and Chapel, anytime I wanted to get some extra routes in, they were always up here.”

“The type of year he had this year, doing it with two separate quarterbacks, and us having to change his role up with us, and for him to have the type of year he had this year, it was just phenomenal,” Howard said.

Austin also praised Howard and the rest of the Panther coaches for believing in him on the football field.

“Coach Howard is like a second dad to me, not only to me but to every kid in Spring Garden,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s football players, volleyball players, softball players. He’s just got that personality. It’s just fun to be around him and fun to work hard for him. You also know he’s going to work hard for you. It’s a mutual thing. You have his back, he has your back. He puts in tons of hours, him and the rest of the staff. Everybody on our coaching staff is just phenomenal.”

Joining Austin and Howard from Spring Garden on the all-county team is Landon Gowens, Andrew Floyd, Chaz Pope, Chapel Pope, Jackson Rogers, Cade Williams, Mathias Williams, Hunter Lewis, Cam Welsh, Zach Kerr and Denver Jarrett.

Panther honorable mention players are Larry Rogers and Jacob Welsh.

Selected from Cherokee County (7-4) is All-Cherokee County Defensive MVP CJ Gresham, Damien Ramsey, Jay Watts, Daniel Mejia, Tae Diamond, Dalton Chesnut, Lamycal Mitchell, Walker Pruett, Jack Amos, Blake Butts, Alex Loyd and Connor Wilson.

Warrior honorable mention players are Cade Hopper, Caleb Harbour, Landon Ransum, Call Young, Hayden Wheeler, Zach Gaylor, Malachi Horton and Alex Johnson.

Representing Sand Rock (7-4) is Trace Haygood, Jacob Cornejo, Olin Pruitt, Tru Graham, Ace Ashley, Bradley Jackson, Bryan East, Carl Goodwin and Logan Crider.

Wildcat honorable mention players are Heath Driver, Matthew Grimes, Edwin Kinsey and Brian Giles.

Cedar Bluff (6-5) has 10 all-county selections in Jacob Burleson, Preston Burt, Nick Clifton, Kade Browning, Dylan Kinard, Bucky Leek, Austin Richardson, Eli McFry, Dawson Wheeler and Hagen Stallings.

Chosen from Gaylesville (6-5) is Michael Reynolds, Briley Mitchell, Jacob Gordon, Keylon Higgins, Hunter Penney, Xander Watts, Seth Lee, Kyler Bradley and Hunter Allmond.

Trojan honorable mention players are Bailey Glassco, Brayden Sharp, Eli Bryson, David Glenn, Tanner Eads and Laiton Keith.

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