Wenonah in Class 5A finals; Ramsay in Class 6A finals
By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
A chant rang out from the visitor stands last Friday night at Lions Pride Stadium on the campus of Briarwood Christian High School.
“We’re going to the Ship! We’re going to the Ship!”
For the uninitiated, “ship” is short for championship, where the visiting Wenonah Dragons are bound after beating the host Lions 14-8 in the semifinal of the Class 5A Alabama High School Athletic Association football playoffs.
That win sends Wenonah to the state championship against at Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. And they won’t be the only Birmingham City School competing for a state football title.
Across town at Lawson Field Stadium in Birmingham, the Ramsay Rams knocked off the Austin Black Bears of Decatur 25-14 to win their Class 6A semifinal and a berth in that class’ title game.
The gridiron success of Wenonah and Ramsay marked a milestone for athletics in Birmingham City Schools. This is the first time two Birmingham City School football teams have reached the championship round in the same post season.
Wenonah (11-2) faces Beauregard (12-1) on Thursday for the Class 5A title. One day later, Ramsay (12-2) takes on Opelika (13-1) for the Class 6A crown. Each game is at 7 p.m.
Wenonah coach Ronald Cheatham fought back tears as he considered what his Dragons had accomplished.
“It was one of those moments that you always wanted to come true and it finally did,” said the coach who has spent 29 years on the Wenonah campus.
Ramsay coach Reuben Nelson had similar feelings. He coached six years at Midfield High before disbanding its program in 2012. Ramsay played football from 1939 to 1976 before disbanded its program for 38 years.
“I can’t even describe it,” he said. “I felt overjoyed. I just felt like, ‘Is it really happening? Are we really going to get a shot to go play for it?’”
Having two Birmingham City teams in finals makes the journey even sweeter, Nelson said. Especially when so many have counted out Birmingham high school football.
In 2010, Jeff Sentell, then the prep writer for The Birmingham News, wrote that city schools had reached rock bottom when all of them failed to qualify for the playoff that year.
“None of the city’s current teams won four games this fall,” Sentell wrote in November of 2010. “Those six teams totaled 15 wins, with seven of those victories coming against one another. Those programs are becoming irrelevant due to the continued bleeding of apathy, population, resources and talent outside the city limits.”
Things have changed in six years.
Birmingham’s seven high school football teams have amassed a 47-30 record.
Jackson-Olin’s eight regular-season wins put the Mustangs in the playoffs. Three years ago, they followed a season-opening win with nine losses to finish 1-9.
Carver made headlines two seasons ago for having back-to-back winless seasons. This year, the Rams of North Birmingham won five games in the regular season and almost made the playoffs.
Interim superintendent Larry Contri is a 1963 product of Woodlawn High School. He remembers when Birmingham set the standard for football success, including back-to-back titles by Banks High in 1972 and 1973.
He also knows the depths to which they had fallen and truly appreciates where Ramsay and Woodlawn have led their sister schools.
“I’m absolutely delighted to have two in the state (finals),” Contri said. “I’m just delighted the win-loss records of all seven of the high schools this year, much less to have two go to Auburn next week to hopefully come home with the 5A and 6A state championship.”
On Friday, Contri skipped the reception of a family wedding to be in the stands as Ramsay played at Lawson Field. He had the honor of handing Nelson the trophy for winning the semifinal game.
The interim superintendent will miss Wenonah’s game Thursday because of a prior commitment to deliver greetings at the Annual Christmas Music Festival at Boutwell Auditorium.
However, he plans to be on hand Friday night when Ramsay tangles with Opelika.
“Student buses will be going and we’re going to support our teams,” he said. “We hope we come back with two championships.”