Progress 2023: From the depths — 2022 Verbena football team beats the odds
Published 3:29 pm Wednesday, March 15, 2023
Editor’s note: This article originally published in “Progress 2023: Behind the Scenes.” Copies are available at our office at 1109 Seventh St. N in Clanton.
STORY BY CAREY REEDER
PHOTOS BY BRANDON SUMRALL
In the 1990s, Verbena High School made the AHSAA Class 1A state playoffs seven of the 10 seasons in the decade. In 1997, the Red Devils completed a perfect 10-0 season and advanced to the state semifinals. Since then, Verbena had just one eight-win season, before 2022 gave them their second.
Coming into 2022, no one thought Verbena had what it took to make a run. Preseason talk around the program was there is no pressure, because the team is not expected to be good.
Second-year head coach Allen Brothers said preseason “whether you want it to be or not, there is zero pressure here … We are trying to be the best versions of ourselves we can be.”
No pressure was probably the right thing considering Verbena had just nine wins since back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, and winning a first-round game in 2015. While some players transferred in and out, the majority of the Verbena roster in 2022 had been playing with each other since as early as 2018.
The Red Devils went winless in 2017 and 2018, and the senior class in 2022 that will graduate in the summer of 2023 had a front row seat into what they were about to walk into.
“It was tough,” senior running Jarod Quinn said of his earlier years.
Quinn recalled a game in 2019 against Lanett High School where Verbena was down 40-0 at halftime, and forfeited the game at the halfway point. Verbena had just enough players to field a team some seasons forcing players to play nonstop on both sides of the ball. Since this senior class was at Verbena, the biggest senior class before them was four players.
In 2022, after a 4-6 record in Brothers first season at the helm, the roster almost tripled. Throughout summer practices, the thought of the state playoffs was constantly preached, and practices were held rain or shine.
“A lot of work … practices … practices in the rain,” Quinn said. “Cold practices, and practicing when others were not really.”
A new year means a new challenge for every Class 1A school in the state of Alabama. For Verbena, that meant a hard-nosed, physical style of football.
“Each year dictates something different, but we definitely had fun running the football this season,” Brothers said.
With the roster size tripling, Verbena was able to rotate players in periodically, and it became a running back by committee with Jacob Morris, D.J. Jackson, Lance Edwards, Zion Smith and Quinn. Brothers said the running backs did not enjoy the rotation at first, but as the season went on, and they stayed healthier, they understood why.
In 2022, the Red Devils rushed for almost 4,000 yards.
“It was definitely fun to beat up on teams that have beat up on us the past few years,” Quinn said. “Especially Billingsley.”
Verbena has played Billingsley High School 79 times in program history, and had not beaten the Bears since 2010. The Red Devils handled Billingsley 54-14 on Sept. 8 to end the Bears winning streak against them.
“We did not just beat them, but we controlled the game,” Brothers said.
Brothers mentioned the Oct. 14 matchup against Autaugaville High School who “was supposedly more physical than we were, and we ran the ball all over them.”
Verbena won 36-20.
The game that really showed Brothers and Verbena fans that this team was special was on Aug. 26 in week two against Fayetteville High School. After trailing 18-16 at halftime, Verbena shutout Fayetteville in the second half and won 50- 18. Just three years removed from forfeiting a game at halftime, Verbena scored 34 points unanswered to blitz to a win.
The best versions of themselves were approaching quickly.
“We finally came together as a team this year,” senior linebacker Ethan Dopson said. “We did the stuff other people did not want to do and got better.”
It takes a lot of guts, pride and resolve to continue to come to work each day in an unsuccessful program. Marino said he did not want to play quarterback at first when he began playing at Verbena, but the position grew on him.
Now, he finished his high school career as a playoff senior starting quarterback in the Verbena football program.
“I did not think it was going to happen, but I am really glad it did happen,” Marino said. “I know we worked hard enough for it to happen, and when it all came together, it was pretty cool.”
By the time the bye week came in mid-September, everyone associated with Verbena High School was believing. Students, teachers and fans packed the stands every week, and the Red Devils were 4-1 going into a matchup with Notasulga High School.
Verbena has not beaten Notasulga since 2010, but handled them 32-14.
“They understood that if we all play together, then we have a really good football team,” Brothers said. “They will leave this program knowing they left it in a lot better shape, and I did it playing beside the guys I love and we had a role we played in it.”
Some of the pillars the 2022 Verbena season was built on were to treat each game coming up as the most important game, and what the team put in Monday through Thursday will yield what they get on Friday night.
“We did some things no one thought we could do, and that all goes back to what we did Monday through Thursday,” Brothers said. “I enjoyed it because they were so bought in this year. For me, it was special because for the first time, I got to see kids go full circle from not being able to finish games to now we are the favorite to win.”
Verbena rolled into a massive Oct. 21 matchup with Maplesville High School with a 7-1 record, and a chance at earning a share of the AHSAA Class 1A Region 4 championship. Maplesville won 36-14, but the buildup to the game in Chilton County was some of the biggest Verbena has felt in years. Quinn said it was the biggest game of his career and “probably bigger than the Sweet Water (High School) playoff game.”
Verbena finished the 2022 regular season with a 60-0 win over A.L. Johnson High School and finished 8-2 and lost in the first round of the state playoffs. Eight wins was the most wins since 2015, and a third-place finish in the Class 1A Region 4 standings was the highest since 2016. Verbena scored at will against most opponents averaging 33.8 points per game.
Brothers said he has had players from Verbena teams from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s reach out to him and express their delight with how the 2022 season went.
“They have thanked us for getting the program back to where it needs to be,” Brothers said. “We will see if we can build some consistency with it, but this group of seniors did a great job of setting us up for success, buying into what we were trying to do and understanding it is a process.”
Now, the process begins again. A new challenge of finding the best way to win games is presented, and the seniors this past season hope their experiences and knowledge is picked up by those next in line.
“I hope the seniors next year will take the role and continue this,” Marino said. “They need to know just because we had one good season that will not carry over to the next. It is not always beautiful.”
There is no denying the progress the Verbena football program has made, and now it is up to Brothers to continue the winning tradition.
“This is one of the (senior) classes that I am most proud of in my career so far because they took the idea that everyone said we were bad, and we believed some of that,” Brothers said. “They turned it into an idea that ‘I do not care what people say we are just going to play hard,’ and they ended up with a nice record.”