District title, other accomplishments overshadow ending for St. Al

Published 9:23 am Tuesday, November 10, 2015

On Oct. 3, the St. Aloysius Flashes had a 1-6 record and were coming off a pair of blowout losses. They still had a chance to win the District 3-AAA title, but after seven weeks of injuries and defeats the odds didn’t seem good.

It’s not hard to understand then, why coach BJ Smithhart sounded upbeat — or at least not devastated — after his team’s season ended Friday night. Considering all it had been through, losing in the second round of the playoffs didn’t seem so bad.

“I’m just proud of the kids. They could have easily hung their heads when they were down 14-0 and they scratched back,” Smithhart said.

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Smithhart was referring to Friday’s 28-7 loss to Silliman Institute in the MAIS Class AAA playoffs, but it was also symbolic of St. Al’s season as a whole.

The season started with a seismic shift, as St. Al moved from the Mississippi High School Activities Association to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools in late July. After reaching the MHSAA Class 1A semifinals in 2013 and 2014, the Flashes had to adjust to a new league and opponents, as well as a difficult schedule. Five of their first seven opponents made the playoffs.

Injuries didn’t help, either. As many as nine starters missed a game at one time or another. Running back DeMichael Harris, a 2,100-yard rusher and the 2014 Vicksburg Post Offensive Player of the Year, missed five. Promising lineman Cole Yearwod and junior receiver Brandon Teller were lost for the year with knee injuries.

The rash of injuries, however, had a silver lining by allowing younger players to gain valuable experience. Sophomore Connor Bottin stepped in during Harris’ absence and rushed for nearly 900 yards and four touchdowns. Juniors Jake Pierce and Landon Middleton emerged as solid players on defense, where they were among the team’s leading tacklers.

As the youngsters rounded into form and some of the regular starters returned, the Flashes ripped off a four-game winning streak down the stretch — and ensured that the 2016 team won’t be starting from scratch.

“There’s no substitute for experience. There’s nothing like actually being in a game and actually playing,” Smithhart said. “It really is how well we jell and grow together, bond and lift weights. We’ll start back after Thanksgiving. We have a core group, and it’s how well they take the reins is how well we’ll do next year.”

St. Al’s late-season winning streak carried through three district games, the district championship game against Riverfield, and the first round of the Class AAA playoffs. Silliman was simply a better team in round two, which was something Smithhart seemed able to live with.

“We just played a good team,” Smithhart said.

Smithhart’s philosophical approach, at its core, might be based in how far the Flashes have come in recent years. They won a total of 10 games from 2010-12, but have won 27 over the past three seasons. The program’s six playoff wins in that span matches its total from the previous 30 years.

Despite finishing with a 5-7 record this year, St. Al has emerged as a team that figures to be a playoff contender on an annual basis.

“You hope so. That’s all you can ask for, is to keep fighting, is to keep lifting weights and have leaders that pass the torch to the next group,” Smithhart said. “Now it’s time to pass it on down and keep it going.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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