Story by Griffin Pritchard | Publisher
Photos by Sandie Free | CAScoreboard Photographer
CRAMTON BOWL (Montgomery) – Clarke Prep Football Coach Ashley Carlisle sat there, almost with a shell-shocked look on his face. His team had just been on the short end of a 60-0 defeat by the Alabama Independent School Association’s top-ranked team, Patrician Academy, in the Class AA State Championship game. The Saints, running for more than 500 yards in the win, had essentially reduced the Gators’ defense to orange-accented paraphernalia. The Gators never stopped battling and fighting.
“The rest of us my seniors – through the rest of the guys, through the rest of the underclassmen – it doesn’t matter the circumstances,” said Jones Skipper. “You’ve got to fight all the way through.”
But there’s more to the story of Clarke Prep’s season than a loss in the state championship. Yes, they had been run out of the stadium, but for all intents and purposes, the Gators weren’t even supposed to be in the conversation and Carlisle had a lot to do with making that change.
“One person voted for us in the poll,” said Carlisle leading up to the game.
That first Alabama SportsWriters Poll looked like this:
- 1. Glenwood (20) 6-5
- 2. Autauga Academy 13-0
- 3. Patrician 8-3
- 4. Chambers (1) 10-2
- 5. Macon-East 7-5
- 6. Edgewood 5-6
- 7. Jackson 10-2
- 8. Lowndes 11-3
- 9. Escambia 11-2
- 10. Bessemer 3-7
Others Receiving Votes: Abbeville Christian (14), Monroe (13), Crenshaw Christian (6), Clarke Prep (1), Lee-Scott (1), Sparta (1)
Carlisle after the state championship game said: “For us to bounce back from the season we had last year and to knock off some good teams along the way to becoming state runner-up is a real step ahead in our program.”
That point was reiterated in the postgame scrum with the media, but this time by one of the Gators in his charge.
“We made it here and nobody believed in us,” said senior Trace Strickland after the game. “We had one person vote for us in the poll at the beginning of the year and now we get to go home second place in AA in the state of Alabama. I’ll take that nine times out of 10.”
When longtime coach Billy Hamilton left the program (1991-2017), he took with him a legacy of 181 wins. In the aftermath, the Gators have had a string of coaches – three since 2018 – and a sub-.500 record. Carlisle – after 12 seasons at Abbeville Christian and a career 77-66 record — took over the Clarke Prep program in 2021 and that first season was rough. The Gators finished 2-9 and were outscored 152-363 and the season was bookended by shutout losses to Jackson (12-0 in late August) and Pike Liberal (55-0 in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs).
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2022 season.
The Gators – with the defection of Tuscaloosa Academy and Pike Liberal to the AHSAA and the normally scheduled reclassification – dropped from Class AAA to Class AA and presented with a new schedule. After losing to Jackson for a second year, Clarke Prep went on a tear. The Gators knocked off Escambia, Snook, South Choctaw and Sparta. A loss to Lowndes stopped the streak, but the Gators picked up the next week with wins over Banks and Pickens and (following a loss to Patrician) ended the year with a win over Monroe. In that run, the Gators began to turn not only the heads of opposing coaches but the state’s sportswriters’ moving from essentially to an “also ran” position in the preseason poll to a two-week stay at No. 5 in the middle of October to the finishing the regular season No. 7 in the final preps football poll.
What changed: The culture? The mentality? The buy-in? The confidence?
Carlisle: “ I have to attribute what we did this season to the kids coming in and working hard. I hate using the cliché of changing the culture but when you start believing that you are going to win. That’s what they do every day when they come in. What we’ve done this year is building the foundation for teams to build on, something for kids to aspire to.”
During that regular season run the Gators nearly doubled their offensive production from a year ago, scoring 314 points during the regular season and holding the opposing offense to 195 points. They finished the 2022 campaign scoring 308 points and allowing 308. It’s also interesting to note that the three regular-season losses were to teams playing for state championships Thursday. Lowndes defeated Jackson in the Class A State Championship game and then … well … Patrician handled their business in the Class AA State Championship game.
Carlisle: “You never give up, no matter the situation. You just keep fighting and keep getting after it.”
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