SPRING GARDEN – Back in 2020, the talk around Spring Garden was how it would fare making the move up to Class 2A for the first time in school history.
The answer? Very well.
The Panthers went a combined 24-3 with two region championships. They earned the school’s first state semifinal berth in 2020 and reached the quarterfinals in 2021.
When reclassification came back around following last football season, Spring Garden moved back down to Class 1A.
But just because the Panthers are moving back down doesn’t mean the Class 1A, Region 6 title is a given, according to head coach Jason Howard.
“That region we went into I think is really, really tough,” Howard said. “Not only is Wadley there, but you’ve got Ragland, who gave Decatur Heritage everything they wanted in the first round of the playoffs last year. Then you’ve got Winterboro sitting there as athletic as any 1A team around. Donoho got a new coach and I’m sure they’ll be much improved. It’s a tough region. I’d put this region up against any 1A region in the state. I’m not taking anything away from the 2A region we were in, but I think this region is going to be just about as tough as the 2A region was.”
As Howard mentioned, the Panthers’ new region consists of the aforementioned defending state runner-up Wadley, Ragland, Winterboro and Donoho, as well as Talladega County Central and Victory Christian.
“The competition really won’t drop down a whole lot,” senior Cam Welsh said. “We have a lot of respect for those guys in 2A. We’ve got a lot of respect for these guys in 1A, especially the ones in our region because it’s a solid region.”
But it isn’t just a solid Region 7 Spring Garden is up against. The Panthers are replacing several of their key playmakers from last season, including all-state performers Cooper Austin, Landon Gowens and Andrew Floyd.
“We’re starting to get the holes filled in through graduation. We had some big shoes that had to be filled,” Howard said. “We’re getting there. This is a group that every day we’re seeing a little progression, getting a little better from where we started. We’ve still got a long way to go, but the progression is coming along pretty good. We’re having some people understand what their role is.
“We’re plugging in some holes on the offensive line. We lost our backfield and receiving corps, but some of them are learning what their roles are. We’ve had a couple who have stepped up and are doing OK to fill those spots.”
Speaking of filling in, junior quarterback Chapel Pope knows all about that.
Following a serious leg injury to his older brother Chaz suffered in the Hokes Bluff game at the midway point last season, Chapel filled in admirably. He completed 3-of-4 pass attempts for 84 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 44 yards on three carries and scored on a 28-yard touchdown run in the second quarter in his first start against Gaston.
The younger Pope even came up big in his first playoff start against Hatton. He connected on 12-of-15 attempts for 203 yards and three touchdowns and added 98 yards and three more scores on 12 carries in a 55-20 victory.
“He’s getting a little better,” Howard said of Chapel Pope. “Coming into the season, he wasn’t where I wanted him to be. His strength’s there, the speed’s there, and all that, but playing so much baseball as a quarterback, your throwing motion is a little different. We’re trying to tweak it. Him playing travel ball and all that kind of stuff, he’s starting to get back into a football throwing rhythm.
“By the end of the year last year, I thought he was throwing the ball pretty well. Hopefully by game one, he’ll be able to be back around that same area that he ended last year.”
Chapel Pope said being thrown into the fire under center last season helped him tremendously.
“We’ve got to keep building on what we’ve been building on, just get better each year,” he said. “Last year helped out a lot, going over the plays, getting to know my teammates. A lot of the receivers came up here during the off-season and we threw a lot, ran some routes, worked out hard in the weight room. We’re just trying to get better.”
Surrounding Chapel Pope in the backfield is Cam Welsh and sophomores Connor Bates and John Welsh. Howard said the trio will also rotate at slot receiver, halfback and tailback.
“They’re learning,” Howard said. “Andrew Floyd pretty much got all the totes last year. Connor got some. He’s stepping in and doing pretty well there. He’s progressing. Cam, being a senior, is showing good leadership and is doing real well.”
Sophomore Jacob Welsh returns to the Panther front line, along with senior Gavin Cash and junior Jacob Dempsey. Howard said several players have rotated at center, but sophomore Tanner Ruark is the frontrunner to be the starter. Freshman Zane Edwards and others will be in the rotation as well.
The Panther receivers consist of seniors Reece Winstead, Braxton Haney and John Marq Rogers. Freshman Clayton Sadler and sophomore Jonathan Baker could also see playing time there.
On defense, Howard said the Panthers probably have their biggest holes.
“We’ve had the luxury in the past, especially with our big guys, playing them one way, but that’s not going to be something we’re going to be having the luxury of this year,” Howard said. “Devin Lapier will be playing a lot of defense. Riley Morrison will play a lot on the defensive front for us. John and Cam are at our defensive ends. Connor and Ray Simpson are in there. Noah Barber is starting in the secondary right now. Chapel, Braxton, Reece and John Marq, all of those guys are in there.
“We’ve got some other guys on the line who are getting in who are going to have to give us some reps here and there like Hunter Parris, Mason Woods, Matthew Livingston. They’re going to have to get in there and give us some looks.”
“Us younger players are having to step up and fill some big shoes,” John Welsh said.
Even though a lot of new faces are in unfamiliar places, Howard said “everybody is buying in.”
“We’ve had pretty good practices. From a coaching standpoint, last year was more fine-tuning everything, but this year it’s go back and have to relearn and re-teach and start all of it again.
“It’s different. When you don’t have a Cooper, a Chaz, a Landon, all those guys, your dynamics of the team change. We’ll look a little different than we’ve looked the past year or two, but if we keep progressing like we do, we’ll be OK.”
Following Friday’s scrimmages against Ohatchee and Handley, the Panthers open the 2022 season Aug. 18 at home against Sand Rock.
“It’ll be a good measuring stick right off the bat,” Howard said. “Right out of the gate we’ve got a tough one. Week 2 doesn’t get any easier. Coosa is probably one of the most improved 1A teams around from what everybody says. They’re probably going to be one of the most athletic 1A teams in the North. Then Wadley rolls in here, so we’re looking at three in a row right there that are going to test us to see what we’re made of.”