By Wil Crews
The Opelika Bulldogs varsity football team is playing with the big boys in 2022.
Subject to the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s (AHSAA) reclassification rules, the Bulldogs moved from Class 6A up to 7A –– the AHSAA’s highest division –– this offseason.
Opelika’s new region includes Auburn, Central Phenix City, Dothan, Enterprise, Jeff Davis, Lee, Prattville and Smiths Station. The new region changes little for the Bulldogs. Mainly, it re-instates the importance of geographical rivalry games against the likes of Auburn and Central.
“Central and Auburn have always been our big traditional rivals,” Speakman said at the fifth annual iHeart High School Football Media Days last Wednesday. “Although we haven’t done much versus Central this past few years to kind of make them a rival anymore. Since 2014 we would play them and it was more of a measuring stick game. Now it goes back to having a big impact on your region standings.”
Reclassification is just one of many changes that have increased the buzz surrounding Opelika football this year.
For starters, the departure of last season’s offensive coordinator will result in a committee-based play calling approach for the 2022 season. In total, three new coaches were added to the staff to help meet the extra needs incurred from jumping up a level of competition to 7A.
“We usually don’t have a lot of changeover at Opelika, but this year we are fortunate to hire a couple new guys,” Speakman said. “As we move up to 7A, you kind of need a little bit bigger staff.”
In terms of the roster, Opelika will miss the production of all-stars Taylor Love (LB) and Jarell Stinson (DB), who both graduated in 2021. However, the Bulldogs return an experienced group –– boasting 29 seniors in total.
“It’s a good senior class,” Speakman said. “Really a class that has always done well since they were in seventh grade. This will be my 23rd year at Opelika, so I have seen a lot of the senior classes come through, and this is one of the better ones from an overall standpoint.”
The strength of the team appears to be its defensive front seven –– a starting group full of seniors across the board. Offensively, talented junior quarterback Roman Gagliano returns to spearhead the attack.
“He’s the first quarterback since 2017-18 to start two years in a row,” Speakman said. “It’s nice to have a returning starter. I think the kids offensively are more relaxed when he is in there, knowing what he can do. We will be able to throw it down the field, obviously. Our game plan is to run the ball, play action pass. But there are times where we have to tell him to take some of the hot sauce off it so our guys can catch it. He’s a tremendous leader. I think he will have a great year.”
The Bulldogs open their season against Callaway on Aug. 19 in a road non-region game. Opelika is 1-2 all-time against Callaway, losing last year, 30-21.
“It’s a great program, great opening game,” Speakman said. “We have had some really good battles the last three years. It’s a big challenge for us to open the season but it’s a fun team to play just to get you ready.”
The week one test will be an appropriate measuring stick for the Bulldogs’ remaining games in the 7A region. According to the players, the reigning AHSAA Class 6A Region 2 champion Bulldogs are ready for the challenge.
“I think the biggest challenge we will face going up to 7A is just handling the hype,” said senior LB Will Garner. “I think the biggest challenge won’t be our skill level or the size of our school, I think our challenge is to just calm down and play our Opelika football and then we will be all right.”