Bessemer and Monroe meet in Class AAA title game on Friday

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 15, 2001

Sports Editor

The Class AAA title game at 4 p.m. on Friday will feature a team that was supposed to be here and one that was not.

Monroe Academy (12-0) returned 17 seniors from last season’s semifinal squad and spent the latter part of 2001 ranked No. 1 in the state.

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"We let Glenwood have the No. 1 spot for awhile and let people gun for them," said Volunteers’ head coach Gary Caldwell, joking.

The Vols’ knocked off Glenwood 33-12 last week.

While the Volunteers have had everyone’s attention, Monroe’s opponent, Bessemer Academy (11-1), has spent much of the year quietly overachieving, according to head coach Mark Freeman.

"I never expected for us to be here," said Freeman. " This has been a year of surprises. We lost about 11 seniors from last season’s team and we just wanted to make the playoffs. But these kids have taken each game one week at a time and we’ve had a good year."

While Monroe comes into the game unbeaten, Caldwell admits it hasn’t been easy. The Volunteers have faced nine teams this year who – at one point in time – were ranked in the AISA top ten. That includes both Marengo and Wilcox, two teams that will be competing in the Class AA championship game at 1 p.m., also on Friday.

"The first five games of the year our defense really carried us," said Caldwell. "By the sixth game, our offense started to get on track and we started to control the ball. This team really plays together and when we’ve had kids banged up, other kids have stepped in. They play with a lot of heart and effort."

Monroe’s Wing-T running game has accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense this season with fullback Tyler Dawson leading the way. Just a junior, Dawson has rushed for 1,300 yards, while halfback K.J. Lazenby has added 928 yards.

"We’ve thrown the ball maybe 50 times all season long," said Caldwell. "We’ve got a good senior offensive line and a number of players that play both ways, but we also have some depth."

Looking at Bessemer, Caldwell is impressed, especially with the Rebels’ starting quarterback Casey Howard. Howard has passed for 12 touchdowns and rushed for eight to lead Bessemer. He’s also picked off eight passes in the defensive secondary.

"He’s (Howard) a very good mobile quarterback," said Caldwell. "If they (Bessemer) were just one-dimensional, focusing on either the run or pass, it wouldn’t be that difficult. But they spread the field out sometimes and throw some motion in there. Once they have you looking for the pass, they hurt you inside with the run. You really don’t know what to prepare for."

Freeman said the Rebels are basically an I-formation, one-back set football team with an emphasis on the short passing game.

"We’re not as good at wide receiver as we were last season, but we do have the ability to spread the field out," he said.

Freeman is equally impressed with Dawson and the Volunteers.

"Wow," he said. "Everything about Monroe is impressive. Dawson is a great player and he’s one of the kids we have to stop. But they can throw the ball to. They’re (Monroe) the type of team you have to beat if you want to win a state championship. They’ve certainly proven that they are one of the best teams in the state and I respect them and Coach Caldwell."

The Rebels only loss of the year was a 13-12 defeat against Edgewood. Bessemer beat 2000 AAA runner-up Fort Dale last Friday night, 21-12, to advance to the finals.

"Our kids work real well together. They’re all friends and they love each other," said Freeman. "We’ve come through some things and the Good Lord’s been good to us."

As powerful as both offenses are, the game may come down to the defense. Both teams feature a 5-3 scheme on the defensive side of the football.

"It may come down to who can break through and make the plays on defense," said Caldwell.