With spring sports coming to a close, Opelika High School has now completed a full academic year since its move to 7A — a year full of ups and downs, according to Opelika Athletics Director Jamie Williams. 

While it has proven to be a new challenge athletically, Opelika is still operating by the same standards it has always run on.

“[The first year in 7A] was a bit of a roller coaster,” Willaims said. “We beat the No. 1 team in the state, Central, in football, but it’s been an adjustment. We played teams like Auburn and Central [before moving to 7A], but now you have to beat them to get in the playoffs, so that’s a little bit of an adjustment.

“Being here before — and I’ve lived here for six years, so I know the community and things like that — it wasn’t as big of an adjustment as opposed to if I had moved in from, like, North Alabama. I thought there was going to be more of a learning curve, but there really wasn’t just because it’s so similar to the position I was in five years ago.”

In 7A Region 2, a division that Williams described as the toughest in the state, Opelika has the tough task of occupying a region alongside teams like Central, Auburn and Smiths Station. Williams compared the Bulldogs’ situation to Auburn University’s in the SEC West, where you have to face opponents like Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M annually.

Being the smallest school according to student population in its region, the move from 6A to 7A has presented Opelika with some challenges. But according to Williams, it has also allowed the school to display its character.

Through the period of growth and change, Opelika has not strayed from what Williams referred to as “the Opelika way.” Opelika is still doing things in the same manner as before, despite being on a bigger platform. 

“I think keeping our small-town, blue-collar values while we continue to grow — that’s the vision, but if you know Dr. [Farrell] Seymore and Mrs. [Kelli] Fischer, they grew up in small towns like I did, so we can appreciate the growth and still hang onto who we are,” Williams said. “You grow, but you still want to keep your identity. We’re going to grow, and that’s going to help our roster situations.”

Specifically for the athletic department, sticking to the same values means staying loyal to the athletes and families that choose Opelika and buy into what it has to offer. On the other hand, he explained that coaches prepare the same at 7A as they did at 6A.

“We can recruit, but we’re not going to,” Williams said. “I know that’s a thing in high school athletics now; a lot of people want to hire a coach, and they bring players from all over where they’ve been. That’s just not us. We’re going to play by the rules. We’re going to win and lose with Opelika products.”

While Opelika knows where its loyalties lie, it welcomes anyone who wants to be a part of its growing scene. Now in 7A, being a Bulldog means lining up with top-tier competition and working with a bolstered staff. 

The jump in divisions fosters the opportunity to bring in more coaches, more staff, implement bigger rosters and possibly add a wider range of sports. More sports and more players is sure to bring a higher standard of competition to Opelika, according to Williams.

“Sports that may not have cut individually could have to start doing that just because of the numbers, but usually that makes kids compete harder,” Williams said. “That helps everyone, you know, when you start competing at a higher level.”

Changes are incoming and improvements are being made with growth, but Williams said he understands the value of staying true to who you are. He expects Opelika to stay at the 7A level for years to come because that’s what he feels is helping the students succeed. 

“People just need to come here and stick their toes in the water and see what we’re all about,” Williams emphasized. “I think once people see what the Opelika way is — that we have our traditions but we’re not stuck in the past — we’re going to be progressive with things, and if it helps athletics, then we’ll do it; if it helps the kids, then we’ll certainly try it on for size. If you do things the right way, people will come.”