By D. Mark Mitchell
As January 1 rolled in little did Opelika fans know that change was ahead.
Things seemed like a normal winter at Opelika High School.
The Opelika girls and boys basketball teams were playing area games. Wrestling continued its season while indoor track competed in prep races, awaiting the AHSAA Indoor State Meets.
Weeks later, Opelika would win the AHSAA Indoor State Meet. Ben Garner led the Bulldogs with state titles in the 800 meter and 1600 meter races. Will Boler won the long jump.
The OHS girls finished second in the AHSAA Indoor State Meet.
The girls basketball team won the area and area tournament championship for the fourth-straight year. Coach Devin Booth led her team to the Regionals in Montgomery Feb. 16., where they lost to Hillcrest of Tuscaloosa in the 6A’s Elite Eight.
Things were status quo, right ?
On Feb. 22, Brian Blackmon resigned his position as Opelika’s head coach and athletics director, to pursue his dream of coaching in college.
He accepted a non-coaching position as an offensive analyst on the Auburn University football staff.
Blackmon had been at Opelika for 21 years, with nine spent as the head coach and athletic director.
Change was apparent.
Opelika School Superintendent Dr. Mark D. Neighbors would lead the search for a new head coach. Before making his hire, Neighbors decided to separate the athletic director and head coach into two positions.
A committee was assembled to assist with the coaching search.
Neighbors asked Opelika City Schools Assistant Superintendent Ken Burton, OHS Principal Dr. Farrell Seymore and three Opelika citizens to join him during the interview process.
March 1 – Opelika High School’s RaKavius Chambers received two national awards for his accomplishments both on and off the football field. He was named the Section 3 recipient of the National High School Heart of the Arts Award for his involvement in the school’s symphonic band, show choir and theatre troupe, and won the 26th annual Franklin D. Watkins Award given to the nation’s top black scholar athlete.
On March 22, one month from the day Brian Blackmon resigned, Neighbors announced the hiring of Caleb Ross as Opelika’s next head coach. Ross’s hiring stunned many across the high school ranks by leaving 7A McGill-Toolen. The 35-year-old coach was coming off back-to-back appearances in the AHSAA Super 7 Football Championship. The Yellow Jackets won the state championship in 2015 and finished runner-up in 2016.
On March 30, Neighbors announced Erik Speakman as the new athletic director. This is the first time dating back to the 1950s that Opelika will have a separate football coach and athletic director. Ross has full control over the football program while Speakman oversees the remaining sports. Both report to Seymore.
April 10 – Rakavious Chambers wins one of two overall Bryant -Jordan Scholarships. The Duke signee carried a 4.3 GPA.
April 11 – The Opelika baseball team ended the regular season by beating rival Auburn 6-1 at Bulldog Park. Senior pitcher Mitch Myers earned the win after pitching a complete game. The senior allowed one hit, one run and struck out 15 Tiger batters.
Coach Nick Richardson led the Dawgs to the 6A State Playoffs with 18 regular-season wins. Opelika would advance two rounds and finished among the top-eight teams in 6A.
May – Spring sports were winding down. The Opelika boys track and field team won the AHSAA State Championship. Ben Garner and CJ Jordan both won state championships.
The girls team finished second in the state.
Coach Tina Deese led the Bulldog softball team to the regional round of AHSAA State Playoffs. Opelika finished in the top eight in 6A.
Opelika opened the newly renovated track after spending a million dollars to bring the outdated track to today’s standards, making it one of the best tracks on any high school campus in Alabama.
Ross took the football team to play Stanhope Elmore in a spring football game. The Dawgs won the game after only 10 days with a new Head Coach.
Opelika High School held its graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2017 May 26 inside Bulldog stadium.
August – The Bulldog Football Team officially started fall practice Aug. 24
Opelika opened the ‘Ross Era’ with a 51-0 win over Smiths Station.
September – On Sept. 1, cross-town rival Auburn beat Opelika 17-13 at Bulldog Stadium.
On Sept. 4, former Opelika principal, assistant football coach and longtime friend, Dr. Don Roberts passed away from a battle with pancreatic cancer.
November – After starting 3-3 with injuries at multiple positions, including the team’s first and second-string quarterbacks, Opelika rallied to win six-straight games.
The football team turned the corner after defeating previously undefeated Wetumpka 20-19 on a 32-yard game winning field goal by Tyler Sellers.
The season ended with a quarterfinal loss to Hillcrest in Tuscaloosa. The Dawgs finished in the top eight in 6A.
December – Opelika’s Conner Pruitt won his fourth-straight AHSAA State Diving Championship at the James E. Martin Aquatics Center on Auburn University’s campus. Already an Auburn commit, Pruitt would later sign a scholarship with Auburn University Swimming and Diving Team.
On Dec. 15, Opelika students awakened to the tragic news of the death of their schoolmate Carly Parker, who passed away after a long battle with cancer. As I wrote last week, Carly touched most of the students at the high school and many in the city of Opelika.
I appreciate each of you reading my column about Opelika Athletics. As you know, I am a big fan and love Opelika! Happy New Year and go Bulldogs!
D. Mark Mitchell is sports director for iHeart Media, Alabama Dixie Boys State Director and vice president of the A-O Sports Council.