By TIM GAYLE
Special to the Elmore/Autauga News
The 2019 season was an eye opener for Billingsley coach Phillip Coggins.
He entered his first year as the Bears’ coach thinking his team had a legitimate shot at winning seven or eight of the 10 regular-season games. Billingsley opened the season with two disappointing losses, then rebounded to win the next five before a rash of injuries sent the team into a four-game tailspin to close out the year.
In reality, 2019 might have seemed like any other year for the Bears. Since winning the 1997 state championship, Billingsley has made it past the first round of the state playoffs just four times. More often, they either miss the playoffs (nine times in that span) or lose in the first round (nine times, including 2019).
“Coming into last year, my expectations were that we were going to be competitive and we were going to make the playoffs,” Coggins said. “We met those expectations. I didn’t think Billingsley was in position to go compete for a state championship at that time.
“But once I got there and saw how hard the kids worked and the effort we consistently got from them, my expectations started to change a little. Hey, maybe we can be really good here, quicker than I thought. We started 5-2 and were real excited.”
Coggins guided Highland Home to the 2A semifinals in 2018 after starting the year with a spring game against Billingsley. Watching the Bears from afar, he was impressed by some aspects, not so impressed with others. It’s been six years since Billingsley has had a winning season and, Coggins figures, about that long since they were consistently more physical than their opponent.
Billingsley finished the 2019 season with just three players lining up in the same position they had in the season opener. Some of that was shuffling by Coggins and the coaching staff, while others were lost to injuries and were replaced by younger players.
“All of those guys got valuable playing experience, those guys that played while the other guys were hurt, and we’re counting on those guys this year,” he said. “They’ve worked really hard in the weight room. We preach being physical. That probably contributed to our injuries because the program has not played that way the last five or six years.”
Among the casualties was the talented Levi Arington, a dual-threat quarterback that had the Bears clicking for a while in September before a shoulder injury sidelined him for most of the remainder of the year. Receiver Brisen Tatum moved to quarterback and was promptly lost for three games with a concussion. The Bears rolled into a battle for the region championship with eventual state champion Lanett and turned to guard Tripp Glass to play some quarterback.
“Our ability to throw the ball was almost zero, so teams started loading the box against us,” Coggins said. “Then we lost our best athlete for a few games after that and our ability to run the ball was more limited. But we pushed through and gained some character going through those battles.”
The good news for the Bears is a lot of players played in 2019, so a lot of experience returns. Receivers Devin Blackmon, Dwyveon Deramus and Camron Cook, all seniors, return as starters along with sophomore Zlondre Tyus. Sophomore Randriquis McCary will be at tailback and returning offensive linemen Mathew Shanholtzer and Jontavious Todd are joined by Demetrious Snead, Christian Green and Jeremy Carroll.
Along the defensive front, Cook, Todd and Tyus are backed up by returning linebackers Kylan Thomas, Andre Lee and McCary and will be joined by Carroll, along with secondary players Blackman. Deramus, Arington and sophomore LeeJon Lasiter.
Coggins believes he has all the elements in place to win, provided he can keep the Bears together.
“We’ve got to win to keep players from going elsewhere,” he said. “The landscape of high school has kind of changed, especially with some of the AISA schools in our area, like Autauga Academy and some of those other schools. They’ve made it difficult for us to keep all the athletes at Billingsley that are from Billingsley.
“We’ve had some that have gone to Maplesville, some that have gone to Autauga Academy, some that have gone to Prattville. If we had all of those guys, we would be competing for a state championship this year. If we can win some and get that turned around, there’s no reason Billingsley shouldn’t be competing for state championships.”
Arington and his teammates spent a lot of time in the weight room during the offseason, trying to help the Bears become a contender.
“I tried to get stronger so I wouldn’t get hurt,” Arington said, “because last year I got my shoulder injury and I think it was because I wasn’t as strong as I am this year. And during the offseason, I did a speed-training thing with my older brother and we bot got a little faster. I used to run a 5.1 and now I run a 4.7, 4.8.
“We’ve got to be a lot more physical than them. They’ve got big guys on the line, but we’ve got better skill guys, I believe.”