High School Football

When Hillcrest and Tuscaloosa County meet on Friday night, they will be competing for bragging rights in one of the area’s most passionate rivalries. While the teams are diametrically opposed in every sense of the word, they share one crucial similarity: they are both led by freshman quarterbacks.

It wasn’t until the second quarter of Hillcrest’s season opener against Spain Park that Ethan Crawford got his chance. The freshman quarterback had been in a battle for the position throughout fall camp and finally had the opportunity to make his case in a live-action game.

Make a case he did.

Utilizing his powerful arm and uncanny ability to scramble, Crawford brought the Patriots’ offense to life.

“(Crawford) just naturally throws the ball very well but also can use his feet to get out of trouble,” Hillcrest coach Sam Adams said. “We saw that several times the other night.”

Even when Spain Park was poised to pull away, Crawford kept Hillcrest in the game by throwing for two touchdowns and over 200 yards. The Patriots eventually fell short, losing to Spain Park in a 42-33 shootout.

Despite the loss, Crawford proved to Adams that he could put his team in a position to win.

While Crawford earned the starting spot behind center with a strong performance in week one, Tuscaloosa County’s Brax Garrison became his team’s starter in a different way. He won the job before the season started by differentiating himself in practice.

“The thing that stood out first were (Garrison’s) leadership abilities, especially as a freshman,” Tuscaloosa County coach Jay Todd said. “From a leadership standpoint, he really just won the team over first.”

Not only does Garrison have the right intangibles, he’s also shown that he can make plays downfield with his arm. In its first game against Demopolis last weekend, Tuscaloosa County had no problem moving the ball with Garrison leading the offense. The problems came when the Wildcats worked their way into the red zone.

“The biggest thing that stood out last week was five trips into the red zones with no touchdowns,” Todd said. “Five trips into the red zone only generated 6 points. We had a botched snap on a field goal attempt and we missed another field goal attempt and then we had a fumble going in. When you get into the red zone, you’ve got to come away with points and we want to come away with touchdowns.”

Tuscaloosa County eventually lost to Demopolis 14-8, but Todd thinks that his team can play better within the 20-yard line against Hillcrest.

According to both Adams and Todd, it’s unusual for two varsity football teams to both start freshman quarterbacks in the same game, which is likely what will happen Friday night.

“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a varsity game that features two starting freshman quarterbacks,” Adams said. “It’s pretty unique but I think both guys are developed beyond their years so it’ll be interesting to watch.”

Crawford and Garrison won’t be starting in just any game. For both of their teams, it will be one of the most important contests of the season. Not only are both teams searching for their first win, but they’re also competing for county dominance.

“It’s just a big deal,” Todd said. “Being on top of the mountain in football in this county is a big deal. This game goes a long way toward that. Being county champions isn’t an official title, but everybody knows.”

Todd said he believes having two freshmen quarterbacks playing in the game will add a new dimension to the historical rivalry.

“I’d be interested to know if that’s ever happened in the history of this rivalry,” Todd said. “That’s just not something that you see very often, to have two guys of that age in this game is going to make for a special game and a special rivalry. It always is, but this just adds a little bit more. These guys will be tied together for the rest of their high school careers. That just adds more to this game.”

Hillcrest has dominated the rivalry game in recent years and is looking for its sixth consecutive win over Tuscaloosa County on Friday night. It’s a trend that Todd, who was promoted to head coach from defensive coordinator this year, is hoping to stop.

“When I first got hired here, the one thing that was talked about consistently was that ‘You’ve got to find a way to beat Hillcrest,’ ” Todd said. “I would only imagine that when coach Adams got hired at Hillcrest when he did, that was probably a topic of conversation too.”

The game will kick off at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Tuscaloosa County High School.

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