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Pickens County teams savoring success


CARROLLTON | On a typical Friday night in the fall, it’s not out of the ordinary for most everyone to be somewhere checking out a high school football game. This season, the spirit was up a notch in Pickens County, a rural setting in West Alabama with a population of just over 19,000. Two teams, separated by 10 miles, both rich in football tradition, shared similar success on the field. Pickens Academy and Pickens County High are in the smallest classifications in their respective associations.

For Pickens Academy, it’s Class A in the Alabama Independent School Association. For Pickens County, it’s Class 1A in the Alabama High School Athletic Association.

Last week, Pickens Academy made the trip to Troy University to face Restoration Academy, a team the Pirates had come up short against two times in the past. Restoration Academy took a 48-13 win over Pickens Academy in the title game. The Pirates, who started with eight straight wins, finished with a 10-3 record.

It hasn’t always been easy for third-year head coach John Gartman.

"We’ve come a long way," Gartman said. "We’ve got a group of seniors that started with me as sophomores. This team has kind of matured over that time."

The Pirates were 6-5 in Gartman’s first season and followed that up with a 3-7 mark last year.

Gartman said with the success of this season, along with the rich history at Pickens Academy, things have been extra special. The school encompasses kindergarten through the 12th grade and has about 265 students.

"Pickens has pretty deep roots," he said. "There are a lot of people involved that live here, that went to school and that goes back decades. I think it’s made it even more special."

Jean McBride is a high school English teacher at Pickens Academy. She knew this season was special.

"The crowds have been tremendous," McBride said. "At pep rallies and ball games, there’s constantly something going on. I think it’s great for the morale and the kids. In past seasons, there was a lot of basketball talk because we just didn’t do well."

McBride said participation in all sports is up and that the Pickens Academy band does a lot under the direction of Jason Jackson to add to the atmosphere of a Friday night.

"They’re playing really fun music and pulling some of the old music out too," she said. "He’s got them playing really good stuff. They don’t just stand there and play. They rock back and forth. That contributes to the atmosphere.

Patrick Plott is now taking care of business at Pickens County in his second stop with the Tornadoes. He coached the team to an 11-win season in 2008. In 2009, he coached Bullock County in Union Springs. Plott returned in 2011 and guided Pickens County to another 11-win year and directed the basketball team to a championship, its third in a row.

This season, like Pickens Academy, the Tornadoes won their first eight games and climbed as high as No. 5 in the Class 1A rankings. Pickens County has never won a state championship in football but came close in 2009, finishing 12-2 after a loss in the semifinals.

In this year’s opening round, the Tornadoes took a home playoff win, defeating Falkville 63-0. Last week, Pickens County traveled to Cedar Bluff and posted a 34-0 shutout. Tonight, the Tornadoes take on Berry in a quarterfinal-round playoff game.

Prior to this season, Plott decided to stage Midnight Madness. The coaches and players hit the practice field at 12:01 a.m. on the first official practice date. He said the kids were excited about that and now the team finds itself squaring off against Berry in the quarterfinals.

"This town always turns out and supports the team, but it’s obviously different when they’re winning like they are now," Plott said. "This is a small community, so everyone supports it. Kids feed off that."

And what would it mean for Plott if he were able to steer Pickens County (10-2) to the first football state championship in school history? He put it simply.

"It would mean a lot," he said. "That’s our goal coming in each year, to play for a state title."