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From the Sidelines: Bold predictions for 2009 football

Marengo Academy officially kicked off the high school football season Thursday night with a 30-21 loss to rival Patrician. The game marked not only the launch of high school football around the state, but the arrival of one of the favorite times of year in the Black Belt.

At The Times, we just put the finishing touches on our annual Gridiron magazine, which is due out Wednesday. The publication will come complete with photos, breakdowns and inside looks at nine Black Belt high school football teams and the boys from the University of West Alabama.

Keeping with the festive mood that accompanies the beginning of football season, we offer you 10 bold predictions for the upcoming campaign.

10. UWA will finish higher than the eighth place spot predicted by the Gulf South Conference coaches. The Tigers return a lot of talent under a coach who has been there and done that before. When the dust settles, 2009 will prove an important turning point in the maturation of West Alabama football.

9. Sweet Water’s Johnny Lockett will win the ASWA Class 1A Back of the Year Award. Predicting postseason awards is harder than prognosticating postseason teams. However, Lockett was a finalist for the award last year. He enters 2009 with a his college plans — the University of South Alabama — already set, having established his name in high school football lore with his performance against Speake in the state title game a year ago.

8. Linden will win Class 1A, Region 3 again. The favorite in the division is widely considered to be Maplesville. The Red Devils were young last year and faltered down the stretch after losing to Linden on their own home field. A perennial power in 1A, MHS returns plenty of talent with more experience. On the flip side, Linden returns without No. 44. So those “in the know” seem to prefer to view the Pats as a flash in the pan. But there is more talent on the Linden team than most people realize and the addition of Justin Delaine helps to fortify an already solid defensive line. So look for Linden to be right back atop the region come late October.

7. Marengo High School will finish second in the Class 1A, Region 1. I get it. They have a new coach and lost a lot of seniors off the team that gave Brantley a decent run in the playoffs last year. That’s fine. You don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid just yet. But James Rutherford has the Panthers buying in to a system that emphasizes ball control, toughness, discipline and defense. Barring major injuries, the Panthers will have what it takes to topple McIntosh and J.U. Blacksher to host their first round playoff game.

6. John Essex will win more games than it did in 2008. The Hornets have won a combined three games in the past two seasons. Two of those victories came last season and JEHS pushed Sunshine to three overtimes before succumbing. Under new head coach Lenoise Richey, look for the Hornets to show improvement. While their offense left much to be desired at Wednesday’s Jamboree, the Hornet defense showed itself better. They may not be world beaters just yet, but look for Essex to sneak past a few teams if they stay healthy and stay together.

5. A.L. Johnson will make the playoffs. Linden will be good again. Maplesville and Billingsley will still be Maplesville and Billingsley. And Holy Spirit should be formidable again. But ALJ has more athletes than most realize and this year the Eagles bring a level of experience and leadership that has been noticeably absent in recent years.

4. Demopolis defensive lineman Tremaine Sanders will get a scholarship offer. The senior’s ability in unquestionable. Still, college coaches seem to constantly harp on certain numbers. They cite his height — listed as 5-10 — as reason to shy away from him. But expect somebody, somewhere to look at other numbers; chiefly the 385 he bench presses or the 26 reps he did at 225 pounds at the combine lift in Thomasville this past spring. Moreover, the kid can absolutely play. A collegiate opportunity has to be in the works.

3. Marengo Academy will make the playoffs. Yes, the Longhorns don’t have numbers. Yes, they are in the region with teams like Tuscaloosa Academy and Bessemer Academy. But the Longhorns showed plenty of heart in their first outing of the season against No. 6 Patrician and have a run of region games against teams like Kingwood, East Memorial, Prattville Christian. After facing juggernauts like PA, Glenwood and Macon-East Montgomery, the Longhorns will be more than ready to slice through those region games with new coach Robby James’ wing-T attack.

2. Sweet Water will beat Bastrop (La.). The Louisiana-based program is a national power. They have sent a number of player to Division-I schools, including Class of 2009 super prepster Rueben Randle and four-star defensive tackle Joshua Downs. But there is just something about Sweet Water at Sweet Water. They lost on their own home turf to Leroy at the end of last season. But don’t expect the Bulldogs to go down at home again this season.

1. Demopolis will win the Class 5A state championship. There are a number of obstacles in their way. Ahead of them in the polls are Briarwood Christian, Doug Goodwin’s Russellville squad and defending state champions Vigor. And the Tigers have yet to get that whole Carver High School monkey off their backs. The region also includes a sneaky good Greenville team. So there are plenty of reasons to bet against them. But this Demopolis team is more talented than its 2008 predecessor. If the Tigers can come together in any fashion close the way they did at the tail end of last year, they will be a difficult out for anybody in the playoffs.

So there they are, 10 bold predictions for the 2009 season. Take them. Leave them. Laugh at them. But whatever you do, remember them. And know that the safest prediction is that football fans in the Black Belt are in for a terrific 2009 campaign.