St. Al excels inside District 3-AAA, not outside it

Published 9:00 am Monday, October 17, 2016

Getting to the playoffs in high school football is really about peaking at the right time and winning the games that matter most. No one has learned that better in the last two years than the St. Aloysius Flashes.

Since joining the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools prior to the 2015 season, St. Al has gone 0-12 in regular-season non-district games and 6-1 within its league. It’s a bizarre split, but it’s also been beneficial. The Flashes (2-7, 2-1 District 3-AAA) can earn a share of the District 3-AAA championship for the second year in a row — and possibly a playoff berth — by beating Riverfield Academy in their season finale this Friday night.

“We play some really tough competition in the beginning of the season. We play some MHSAA teams, and some really tough MAIS teams. I think that helps us going down the stretch, because when it comes down to it it really only matters at the end of the season,” said St. Al offensive lineman Ben Brown, who scored a rushing touchdown and recovered a fumble on defense in a 41-14 win over Central Hinds last Friday.

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In following the Flashes’ seasons in 2015 and 2016, some of the reasons for their success inside the district and lack of it outside become apparent.

Only two of the 12 non-district games were against teams that wound up with or currently have losing records. In 2015, five of their six non-district opponents finished with at least eight wins.

At the same time they were playing quality opponents, a wave of early-season injuries hit in both seasons. At one point midway through the 2015 season, nine starters were out. Early in this season, injuries to key players like wide Brandon Teller and Landon Middleton hurt the team’s depth and led to several blown leads in the fourth quarter.

The schedule that is so difficult at the beginning of the year has also been a blessing, however, because it’s back loaded with three of the team’s four district games in consecutive weeks to end the season. That has coincided with the return of injured players both times, which has allowed the Flashes to have their best, most complete lineups on the field for the games that do truly matter.

In 2015, the Flashes won those last three games to finish 4-0 in the district and win the title. This year they’ve beaten first-place Manchester and Central Hinds in back-to-back weeks with two of their best games of the season.

St. Al had 527 yards of total offense in last week’s 41-14 win over Central Hinds, while the defense forced four turnovers and held the Cougars to 137 yards.

“We knew we had a good football team for our classification, and the records don’t always indicate it,” St. Al coach BJ Smithhart said. “We played a tough schedule, and we’re pretty battle tested. We’ve got pretty good speed, we’ve got pretty good size, and we’ve got some hungry defenders. Everybody has been playing together and we’ve gotten a couple of guys back, and you can see the difference. Our record is very deceiving. We’re a very good football team for AAA football.”

St. Al’s one district loss this season, a 33-14 setback at Hartfield Academy in mid-September, might end up costing it the league championship. Hartfield (5-4, 2-1) plays Central Hinds this week, and can force a three-way tie for first place with a win. In that scenario, Manchester Academy (6-3, 3-1) would win the district title through a point differential tiebreaker.

If Hartfield loses, St. Al would win the title based on its head-to-head tiebreaker with Manchester.

In either scenario, St. Al could still earn a wild card berth in the Class AAA playoffs. Its two-game winning streak has moved it up nearly 10 spots in the MAIS power point rankings that determine the wild card teams, and another win might be enough to take it off the bubble and into the 16-team postseason field.

No matter what happens, Brown said, the Flashes never lost faith in their ability to make this late-season surge.

“We’re just clicking more. We’ve been really good all season. What a lot of the players have said is when we won our first game we’re the best 0-7 team that’s out there. It stands true, and we just have to keep fighting if we want to win,” Brown said. “Hopefully it’ll be in the playoffs. I’m not sure what all goes into that, but we have our best chance if we win out.”

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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