Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

Catholic coach Kirk Johnson is accustomed to long searches for football opponents to fill out Catholic’s schedule every two years.

But after winning the Class 4A state championship this past December, Johnson discovered that it’s only getting harder.

“We were getting a lot of calls from 7A schools — Opelika, Enterprise, schools that have 1,300 kids,” Johnson said. “And I tell them we have 300.”

He thought he had found the headliner in Week 5, a matchup with Mobile Christian.

“The biggest game, in our eyes, was the reigning 3A state champion against the reigning 4A state champion,” Johnson said. “We got that game (on our schedule) pretty early, but then the coach said his athletic director didn’t agree with the game, so they backed out of it. That would have been a great game.”

Catholic had already posted their upcoming 2024 football schedule on social media and five days later were told by Mobile Christian they wouldn’t play. Catholic officials had already lined up charter busses and a driver for the trip.

The other three non-region games on Catholic’s schedule were challenging to pin down as well. The Knights open in Week Zero with a game against St. James — “that’s the only private school that will play us,” Johnson said — but ran into problems trying to fill a Week One vacancy and a Week Three vacancy as well.

In Week One, Johnson thought he had lined up Bowdon (Ga.) High. Much like Catholic, Bowdon’s success has made it difficult to fill out a schedule. The Red Devils are 53-13 over the last five years, winning the Class A Division II state title in 2022 and 2023.

But as they finalized the date, Johnson discovered Alabama’s Week One and Georgia’s Week One aren’t the same weeks.

“There was a school in Georgia that couldn’t play us in Week One, it didn’t line up,” Johnson said. “So we picked up St. Clair County. He got dropped by somebody.”

That left Week 3, a vacancy on some schedules for teams in seven-team regions, but not everyone’s open date matches up with other AHSAA teams.

“Who has a Week 3 opening?” Johnson said. “You all get a random draw for when your open date is. Quinn (Hambrite at Charles Henderson) is still looking for a Week 7 (opponent). Who has Week 7 open? And if you have a Week 7 (opening), do you want to play Charles Henderson? I can’t speak for every program, but I know there were a lot more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s.’

“We hit up all the Catholic schools — St. Michael’s, McGill-Toolen — and it just so happened that somebody put me in touch with the Pensacola Catholic coach.”

But even when he thought the schedule was complete, he discovered he still needed one more opponent.

“(Saraland) Coach (Jeff) Kelly called me (about another matter) and he was complaining that he was still looking for a game,” Johnson said. “This was the day before Mobile Christian told us they weren’t playing. So I called him back and said, ‘Are you still looking for a game?’”

So now the headliner for the Knights is a Week 5 trip to Saraland, the team that reached the 6A finals a month ago before losing in the most exciting game of the Super 7 Championships. Kelly has never failed to reach the playoffs in his 13 years as the school’s head coach and has compiled a 43-3 region record over the last six years.

Catholic has similar numbers over the last six years, compiling a 39-1 region record and reaching the state finals twice, but there is that nagging issue over enrollment. Saraland has 885 students, according to the classification numbers just released by the Alabama High School Athletic Association, while Catholic has 225.

Those numbers would make Catholic a small 3A program, but the AHSAA’s 1.35 multiplier applied to private school enrollments boost the school to 4A and Competitive Balance Factor, a postseason formula applied to private schools, elevates them to 5A.

“We talk about how we want to be the best,” Johnson said. “You get a chance to go down to a Taj Mahal in the state and it’s going to prepare us to make essentially the same drive to (region rival) Andalusia this year. We can’t claim we want to be something and not prepare to be it.”

Catholic’s schedule, while not perfect, does have 10 games on it, something Johnson wasn’t sure he would find when he started his search.

“Truly, I wish I could move St. James to Week One and go get a big (classification) team for Week Zero, like open up with Saraland or Gulf Shores,” he said. “But those Week Zero matchups fill up before the (previous) season is over.

“But we’re excited about the schedule. It’s difficult in some people’s eyes, but we feel good about it.”

This time, they delayed the announcement on social media until they had a signed contract from Saraland.

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