Spain Park Football
Spain Park junior running back Larry Wooden runs for a first down in the 7A title game against McGill-Toolen at Bryant Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
After going 3-4 in Class 7A, Region 3 play and missing the postseason just one year ago, the Spain Park football team constructed a season to remember in 2015.
On their way to the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s Class 7A championship game, the Jags strung together a school-record 12-game winning streak, clinched the region title with an undefeated region record and toppled archrival Hoover High — twice.
“If you look at all the stuff that went right for us this year, I mean, I’m sitting there thinking, it could be three or five or 10 years before this happens again for us,” said Spain Park coach Shawn Raney, who just concluded his third season as head coach with a heartbreaking loss to McGill-Toolen in the state final.
What was the key to such an unprecedented turnaround and improbable run to the state championship game? Everybody bought in.
“I put a deal up on the big screen early this summer, and I said we’re only going to be a good football team if it hurts you to let your teammate or your coach, if it hurts you to let them down,” Raney said. “For the first time since I’ve been here, I thought we got to that point. Our kids didn’t want to let their teammates down, didn’t want to let their coaches down, and whenever you get that, you’ve got something.”
Achieving such a collective sense of investment is, as Raney discovered in his first two seasons at Spain Park, much easier said than done. Due to his conservative style of play, which emphasizes a relentless commitment to the ground game and requires a near-impenetrable defense, Raney’s roster necessitates a certain type of player in order for his team to reach its full potential. Little room exists for blue-chip superstars and self-centered divas. A successful Raney-coached team must consist of driven, selfless individuals who value collective success over personal glory.
Scan the 2015 Spain Park roster, and you’ll find an abundance of that prototype.
“I felt like we have a lot more cohesion between everyone on the team, and I just feel that everyone did their job the way it was supposed to be done,” senior center Grey Best said. “I feel like there was no star athlete who just did his own thing, compared to like last year, when we had a couple of those guys. But this year everyone played as a team, and everyone executed as a team. Everyone went out there as one.”
But, as anybody involved with the Spain Park program can attest, the transformation did not happen overnight.
Beginning last November, one week after the Jags’ season came to a premature end following the regular season finale, the process of evolving into a new team commenced. Signaled by the departure of the 2015 senior class, a new group of leaders, the Class of 2016, began to emerge, ready to take charge and change the program’s culture.
“I feel like the seniors this offseason really, really pushed everyone to the limit — not only their selves, but everyone else around them in a way where everyone knew we had a chance to make the dream work because the team was working,” Best said.
Energized by a unifying offseason, Spain Park entered 2015 led by a group of veterans determined to elude the same disheartening fate experienced one year before. Unlike the previous senior class, this team would not allow its season to end shy of a postseason berth.
“It was definitely one of those things where like, you saw how it went down last year, and you didn’t want that same feeling,” senior defensive back Bryan Sanderson said. “You see them not even make the playoffs, and you just know that’s not how you want to go out.”
Not even an adrenaline-pumping, season-opening loss in triple overtime changed that.
While other teams would have undoubtedly wilted after the deflating loss to Class 6A Austin High School, the Jags viewed the defeat from a positive perspective, using it as an opportunity for an early-season self-evaluation.
“After the Austin game, we especially bought in because we knew we were better than how we played that night,” Sanderson said. “At that point, we knew we weren’t just going to go out and beat teams. We had to go out and play together and do everything we were supposed to do to win a game.”
Immediately, the effect was evident. After rebounding the following week with a dominant 31-0 blanking of Hueytown, the Jags relied on one another as they grinded through the treacherous, seven-game gauntlet better known as region play.
But, as a testament to the team’s resilient composition, when the going got tough, the tough got going.
Spain Park never folded down the daunting stretch, as player after player stepped up when it mattered most. Whether it was splitting the uprights with a game-winning field goal or coming up with a vital stop on fourth down, the Jags banded together like never before, refusing to let one another down.
“They continued to believe no matter what was going on, you know, on the field whether we’re ahead, behind,” Raney said. “They just continued to play and do what they were coached to do.”
That trend continued throughout the postseason as well, with Spain Park mounting a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks in both the state quarterfinals and semifinals. No matter the opponent, the Jags established themselves as a team that played all 48 minutes.
“We’re not going to finish until the clock strikes three zeroes across the board,” senior fullback DeAndre Thompkins said.
And they didn’t, not even in the state final with their backs against the wall. Trailing by two scores with less than six minutes to play, Spain Park kept fighting and trimmed the deficit to two points before falling just shy in the closing ticks.
Despite the stinging defeat, the Jags’ 2015 team still surpassed expectations, providing a foundation to build upon and a benchmark for which to aim.
“I feel like we really set the bar, like the standard, for what a Spain Park team should be, especially with how blessed we are with the facilities we have, with the program we have, with how big our school is in general and the population of students,” Best said, “and I feel like this year we really changed the name of the ‘SP’ on our helmets.”
Plus, thanks to the team-wide adoption of unselfish attitudes, a culture (and status) change has been sparked at the Park.
Rather than annually assuming the role of Hoover’s little brother and perennially settling for second place, the vibe emitted from Spain Park’s Columbia blue-coated hallways communicates the notion of a program on the rise, the framework for years of future success already constructed.
“I think if we can keep this going here, with the consistency and the buy-in by the kids, I think it will do nothing but get better,” Raney said.