As the undefeated, third-ranked Wildcats enter tonight’s first-round, Class 3A playoff game against Good Hope at home, they believe they’re not done making history.
“It’s fun, how we made 10-0, or whatnot, but now, we’re starting a new season,” quarterback Tre Smith said. “We want to go 5-0 from now on.”
That would mean the first state football championship in Saks’ history, which would solidify this team’s place in school history, but it’s hard not to think in historic terms for a school that hasn’t had many seasons like this.
These Saks Wildcats are already the first to finish the regular season 10-0.
They’re the first to finish the regular season unbeaten since Jack Stewart coached Saks to an 8-0-1 record in 1971, and the first to go unbeaten and untied since Stewart’s 1968 team went 9-0.
There have been two state runner-up teams, in 1968 and 1996. The ’96 team won a school-record 13 games under Bobby Joe Johnson.
Since 1960, Saks has had just 19 winning seasons and only three with double-digit victories, the first two including playoffs.
So, when Saks produces a special season like the current team has, it energizes the Saks’ community.
“I’ve heard a lot from different people, not necessarily after last week, but just all throughout the season,” said second-year head coach Jonathan Miller, who was promoted from defensive coordinator in 2012 and has coached at the school since 2003. “There have been people that have stopped me after the games and complimented our team, and that’s meant a lot to our players and our coaches and that kind of thing.
“We’ve just tried to work every day to be a team the community can be proud of.”
The pride showed when one of the biggest crowds in recent memory showed at Jack Stewart Field for the Wildcats’ eye-opening, 40-15 victory over then-second-ranked Piedmont on Oct. 18.
“Everybody had been pointing to that game all year, and for our community to come out and support us the way they did was a big lift, a big boost for our kids,” Miller said. “That was by far the most people we’ve had at a game since I’ve been here.”
As for the 2013 team’s place in school history, it’s hard to compare eras and circumstances. The current team is 3A in the six-classification era, which started in 1984. The 1996 team made it to the 5A finals, losing only to Oxford and state champion Blount. The 1968 and 1971 teams were 3A when the Alabama High School Athletic Association had only four classifications.
The 1968 team made it to the finals of a four-team playoff, losing to Russellville in the final. The 1996 team had to win four playoff games to reach the final, as this year’s team would have to do.
It’s hard to find an authoritative voice to cover the eras. Even Jacky Sparks, the former Calhoun County Schools superintendent who was a Saks assistant coach from 1968-74 and whose son Nathan played for the Wildcats in 1996, said he hasn’t seen this year’s team play.
“I understand they’ve got a lot of speed,” he said. “They may be able to compete with any of these teams or maybe even beat them. It’s hard to compare.”
Still, he favors the 1968 team, especially compared to the 1971 and 1996 teams.
“I don’t think the ’68 team could be beat around here, in particular by any of the other Saks teams,” Sparks said. “I don’t think so. They were too talented, and they were physical.”
One comparison is how the community responded to the great Saks’ teams.
Sparks attended the 1996 team’s games to watch his son play and recalled surprisingly “sparse” crowds for a state-finalist team.
The 1971 team tied Oxford 14-14 in a game Sparks called “one of the biggest games ever played in Saks Stadium.”
“It was Bill Burgess’ first year down there (at Oxford),” Sparks said. “They were undefeated, and we were undefeated, and people were sitting everywhere. I mean, it was an overflow crowd.”
The Saks community was never more energized about its high school football team than in 1968, Sparks said. It was Stewart’s third season as head coach, and he had just delivered the school’s second winning season in 1967.
“The community was so elated,” Sparks said. “Every year, they bought him a new car.”
Sparks said 1968 “was the first year that Saks really was on the map, football wise.” So unexpected was Saks’ run to the state final that at least six opponents scheduled the Wildcats for homecoming.
“You really try to schedule a team you think you can beat on your homecoming night,” said Sparks, who coached offensive and defensive lines. “We spoiled six of them. It might have been more than that.
“The next year, we didn’t play any teams on their homecoming.”
Saks has been building to this year’s team. The Wildcats have had six winning seasons in the past seven years under Miller and his former boss, Clint Smith, who became Jacksonville’s coach in 2012.
This season will mark the third in a row in which the Wildcats have made the playoffs. They last won a playoff game in 2009 and last won one at home in 2007.
This year, Saks has done it with speed throughout its group of skill players and a largely unsung but strong offensive line that helped the Wildcats average 46.7 points a game.
Their opponents have a 50-50 record, but five made the playoffs.
Saks beat Calhoun County rivals Wellborn, White Plains, Alexandria, Weaver, Piedmont and Jacksonville. Wellborn is a 2A team, but Alexandria and Jacksonville are 4A.
Still, the Wildcats hope to enhance their place in school history against a tough 3A northern bracket that includes top-ranked Madison Academy.
“Lately, we’ve made it to the second round, but we’d always lose,” Tre Smith said. “We just want to go farther this year, and we’ve got a real good team to do it.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.