In three days, Saks will play in perhaps the biggest game the school has ever hosted when defending state champion Madison Academy visits for a Class 3A semifinal playoff game. By the time Friday's contest kicks off at 7 p.m., Jack Stewart Field is expected to have an overflow crowd – maybe even bigger than the one that poured into the Saks field for a regular-season win over rival Piedmont, which clinched a region championship.
The Wildcats’ playoff run – which has included three wins in each of the past three weeks – and the team's first 13-0 record in school history has energized the team’s supporters, which in turn has motivated the players.
“It’s been crazy,” Saks senior tailback Devontae Young said. “We’ve been playing for the people that are telling us that we inspire them. They tell us to keep fighting and win. It makes us feel like we can do anything.”
Saks has played in the state semifinals only twice in its football history. In 1996 — before the current team’s underclassmen were born — Saks won a semifinal game at Bradshaw before losing to Blount in the finals at Birmingham’s Legion Field. In 1968 — perhaps before many of the current team’s parents were born — Saks beat Fairfield in the state semifinals before falling to Russellville in the finals. Both games were played in Anniston.
This time, if Saks wins, it will play in the state championship game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
This Saks team has done it with a high-powered offense that has scored 574 points, 200 more than any team in the program's history. The defense has allowed only 14.2 points a game, which is the fewest since the 1997 team gave up 13.7 a game.
Friday will offer Saks fans a chance to see their team at home after two straight trips to the northwest corner of Alabama. The Wildcats went to Lauderdale County for a second-round victory, then to Colbert County in Leighton for a quarterfinal win.
“Traveling three hours across the state is pretty taxing, so I hope (playing at home) is going to be a big boost of energy,” Saks coach Jonathan Miller said. “After accomplishing what we have two weeks in a row against two really good teams, I think coming back home will spark us. It’s late in the year and everyone is beat up, but hopefully, the crowd will carry us and lift our energy up.”
Different banners have been placed around the school by cheerleaders each week to keep spirit high, but it didn’t take a postseason run for Miller to see the large support from the community.
Miller said he hasn’t seen a crowd at Jack Stewart Field like the one he did when the Wildcats faced Piedmont earlier this year. Saks gave the fans plenty to cheer about, winning 40-15. The victory clinched the Region 5 championship, which was the program’s first since 2007.
“We’ve had great crowds all year, and that’s the No. 1 thing kids notice,” said Miller, a Saks assistant during 2003-11 before rising to head coach in 2012.
“For every home game, we’ve had good crowds, but the Piedmont game was tremendous. I think this year the combined attendance for our seven home games has been higher than any other year. Kids like playing in front of crowds and it gives them some energy. It’s just more enjoyable playing in front of a crowd.”
While fans will most likely spend the week talking about the Wildcats facing the defending state champion, the same buzz — if not more — has invaded the Saks team. As Miller said, Saks is in “uncharted territory.”
“If you can’t get excited about practicing and being alive this late in the year then you need to have your heart examined,” Miller joked.
Madison Academy, which is located about a two-hour drive from Saks, is making its fourth trip to the state semifinals. The Mustangs lost in 1980 but won semifinal contests each of the previous two seasons.
They won their first state title last year, beating Fayette County 31-7 in the championship game. They’re 13-0 and have won 23 straight games since an early-season loss to Class 5A Cullman last year.
Their closest two games by far have come against area teams. They beat Clay Central 14-7 in the regular season and Piedmont 34-33 in overtime last week in the quarterfinals. Cullman lost by 18 in Madison Academy’s next closest victory.
But Saks is hoping it can produce another big performance at home Friday night to keep the season alive.
“I love these players and I don’t want this year to end,” Young said.
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.