PIEDMONT – Piedmont senior wide receiver/defensive back Bayley Blanchard can pinpoint when he knew the 2015 Bulldog football team could be something special.
He said the Bulldogs were on their way to a 7-on-7 camp in Memphis when one of the team’s two buses broke down.
Instead of letting the team sit there in the heat wasting time while waiting for another bus, Blanchard said head coach Steve Smith made the most of the opportunity.
“Coach Smith goes, ‘Hey, everybody line up’, and we were like, ‘What are we doing?’ He was like ‘We’re going to put in our new offense this year.’ That was the zone read offense with (junior quarterback) Taylor (Hayes) and (senior tailback) Darnell (Jackson). That worked toward our success this year, and I think that kind of started the bonding.”
That bonding carried on throughout the summer, and throughout a grueling 16-week season, but the Bulldogs reaped the highest reward by winning their second Class 3A state championship in six years.
Piedmont defeated Bayside Academy 44-7 on Dec. 3 in the 3A title game at the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. The victory capped a 14-1 season.
On Tuesday morning, Piedmont formally celebrated their latest football championship in the high school gym. Among the statewide dignitaries present was Alabama High School Athletic Association Executive Director Steve Savarese.
“I always feel at home when I come to Piedmont,” said Savarese, who also attended Piedmont’s 2009 state championship celebration. “It reminds me so much of one of the schools I coached and won a championship. It’s great to be in a place where the acronym for team is exemplified: Together Everyone Accomplishes More.
“This entire community and its support enables students to have the opportunity to achieve. Being here and witnessing that first-hand, it’s always a pleasure to come back. I’m proud to be part of it.”
Smith, who surpassed former Bulldog coach George Hoblitzell as the winningest coach in Piedmont football history earlier this season, gave many thanks in his remarks to those assembled. Among those Smith thanked were the players, his coaching staff, the Piedmont support staff, and the community.
“There are a lot of places in this state like Piedmont that do a great job of rallying around their school and the activities that go on at the school, but I feel like we’ve got the neatest situation around,” Smith said. “A lot of accolades come our way from the academic side. To compliment that with a strong athletic program, something people can be proud of, something that unites and brings a community together on Friday nights, is special. There were guys at this presentation today who played back in the 40s and 50s. There were guys who were at games like Colbert County, some three hours away, who are 80 years old-plus who have a lot of pride in Piedmont.
“An athletic program a lot of times can bring across a lot of generations and a lot of different groups unifying for a common goal. To have the opportunity on my end to be the head coach at a place like this is pretty awesome.”
Along Piedmont’s path to its latest championship was a third-round battle at three-time defending state champion Madison Academy on Nov. 20. The Mustangs had ended Piedmont’s season the past two years, but the Bulldogs managed to pull off a 35-21 victory to get over the hump this season.
But as big as that win was, Smith said the following week against Colbert County in Leighton may have been the biggest game Piedmont faced all season.
Piedmont defeated Colbert County 14-0 to clinch its title game trip to Tuscaloosa.
“That next week, having to play Colbert County, who probably was hot as any team in the state and us having to go into one of the most hostile environments was huge for us,” Smith said. “I read something a long time ago that C.T. Manley Stadium in Leighton was voted the toughest place to play in Alabama. Being able to go into that environment, plus it was Thanksgiving week and we weren’t in school, and that gets kids off their routine – to go play and execute as well as we did against an extremely talented team, that was huge for us. That kind of set the stage for the championship game.”
One of the stars for Piedmont in the 3A title game was Hayes. He threw for 126 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 63 yards on 11 carries and scored twice more to earn the 3A championship game Most Valuable Player honor.
But being a state champion still hasn’t hit Hayes just yet.
“We’ve always talked about this growing up through our years in high school. We never got to do this, and now we’ve finally done it,” Hayes said. “Summer workouts, 100-degree heat, the start of two-a-days, all of those up-downs, sprints, blood and sweat … These guys, I’d take them into battle against any team in the state, no matter what classification. We’ve all been through the same thing, and we all made it. It all paid off for us.”
And now, there’s already talk of Piedmont doing it again. The Bulldogs lose 10 seniors, but they are expected to reload for another title run next year.
“Expectations I’m sure will be out the roof for us next year,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of people coming back, but I hope these kids we’ve got coming back understand that just because you’ve got kids coming back on paper, what got us to where we were in Bryant-Denny (Stadium) and how we were able to finish the season off can be attributed to all the time, work and effort they put in between the final game of 2014 and the first game of 2015.
“There’s going to be a lot of challenges out there for us. There’s a little bit of uncertainty, not knowing where we’re going to fall as far as classification. We could be (Class) 4A, but we may be 3A. There’s a little bit of the element of the unknown, but I’m sure it will revitalize us when we come back to work in January and get ready to start off-season workouts.”
Photos Courtesy of Piedmont High School