February 27, 2020, is where this story begins. Oak Mountain High School’s boy’s basketball team made history, playing in the program’s first-ever AHSAA Final Four game. The Eagles, led by Senior G Zane Nelson had gone on a crazy run during the final months of the season, winning nearly every game they played in the spring of 2020. Oak Mountain had been a team with mild success but had never gotten over the Elite Eight hump. This year was different. The Eagles went 7-1 in area play, facing stiff competition from Hoover, Thompson, and Tuscaloosa County. With the lone loss coming to Hoover on a buzzer-beater in 2OT, the Eagles won the regular-season and tournament crowns. Oak Mountain thrashed Hunstville and outlasted Sparkman to make it to the Final Four, where they faced off with eventual 7A State Champion Lee-Montgomery. After 32 minutes of ball, the Eagles came up short, losing to the Generals 65-57.
Two weeks after this game, the world shut down, reeling from the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. This gave Oak Mountain’s players more time to think about the season they just had, and the season they would hopefully begin in eight short months. The Eagles only lost three players from that squad, Luke Love, Zane Nelson, and Trey Sullivan. Of the three, Nelson was the only individual that saw major minutes down the stretch. Senior, Noah Young would be the leader of the 2020-2021 team from the start, being the lone senior to play major minutes for most of the year. The other starters, Evan Smith, Wilder Evers, and Will Shaver were all coming off solid seasons and would look to develop even more in their Junior year.
The 2020-2021 season started off in a different way than Head Coach Chris Love was completely used to. Oak Mountain’s Football team came within one yard of potentially upsetting Hoover in the state quarterfinal, a game that was played two days after the basketball team opened their season against Wenonah. Smith and Young were both key offensive players for the gridiron Eagles, playing Quarterback and Wide Receiver, respectively. In addition to these two, Cameron Atkinson and Gavin Nelson were tearing it up on the defensive side of the ball, both playing monster roles in Oak Mountain’s first-round upset over Austin. These four individuals were large losses for Oak Mountain at first, but their absences were felt before the first eight minutes of the season had passed.
Late in the first quarter of Oak Mountain’s 61-42 win over Wenonah, Wilder Evers rolled his ankle, and would miss five games. The very next night, Brady Dunn suffered an injury and would also miss five games. Oak Mountain’s first real test came in the third game of the season, just seven days after the football team’s season ended. In an attempt to keep his team healthy long-term, Love decided he would give his four football players a week of rest before he would begin putting them on the floor, or even making them practice. With one starter, Oak Mountain traveled to Spain Park, a team that ended up coming three seconds short of playing for a state title. The Eagles lost to the Jaguars 52-45, a loss, yes, but impressive, considering the circumstances.
Once the football players joined the team, Oak Mountain found a stride, winning six of seven games, including an overtime win over 5A runner-up Ramsay, and a 14-point win over 6A Huffman, who ended up making the Elite 8. Oak Mountain ran into trouble on consecutive days, losing to #4 Vestavia Hills 70-58 and #7 Sparkman 52-48, two eventual Sweet 16 losers. From December 15 to January 15, the Eagles were lost. Oak Mountain went 5-4 in this timeframe, with two ugly losses coming to 6A Clay-Chalkville (Elite 8) and 6A Oxford (Sweet 16). Over the holiday break, Oak Mountain was struck by injuries again, with Evan Smith and Will Shaver both requiring surgery on different injuries. Smith missed only three games, returning to the lineup for the area opener against Hoover. While he was in the lineup, he was nowhere near 100%. He was nursing a healing broken right wrist, his dominant hand. Smith put up 19 points in his first two games, which the Eagles dropped, losing to Hoover 50-35, and 48-43 to Tuscaloosa County,
Will Shaver underwent a procedure on his foot, which bothered him the entire season, according to Love. Shaver missed four games, and Oak Mountain lost three of them. Without Shaver, the Eagles looked lost offensively, as he was the guy they went to for points in the paint. Standing 6’11”, Shaver averaged 13.8 PPG and 7.6 RPG. Without him, Oak Mountain got outrebounded and shot more threes than they were used to. Shaver returned to the lineup on January 19, and the season turned around.
Oak Mountain stormed back over the last month and a half of the season. The Eagles went on a seven game winning streak, which saw them finish area play 4-2, sweeping Thompson, and splitting with Hoover and Tuscaloosa County. Two sloppy wins over Chelsea and Helena lead right into the Area Semi-Final against Thompson, and the Eagles won 53-44 to clinch a berth in the Sweet 16.
After losing to Hoover 54-43 in the Area Championship, Oak Mountain wouldn’t lose again. The Eagles traveled to James Clemens in the Sweet 16 and dominated from the get-go. Lead by an impressive performance from Noah Young, the Eagles “upset” the Jets 64-53, setting up a rematch with Hoover in the Elite 8. In front of a sold-out crowd at Wallace-Hanceville, Oak Mountain held Hoover to 30 points, and clinched their second consecutive Final Four trip, defeating the Bucs 43-30. That suffocating defense picked up where it left off, holding Auburn to 37 points in the State Semi-Final, a game where the Eagles came back to win 45-37, behind 15 points from Evers and 12 from Young.
Wednesday, March 3, 2021, is a day that would live in Oak Mountain lore, regardless of the outcome. There was so much excitement around the State Championship game, and deserving so. Oak Mountain had never won any titles in any of the “major sports,” and hadn’t even played for a state championship while this senior class walked the halls. The Eagles weren’t the only newcomers to this game. The Enterprise Wildcats hadn’t played in a Final Four since 1958 prior to their buzzer-beating 2OT victory over Spain Park on Tuesday night. Both schools were fired up, selling the game out at 7:49 pm on Tuesday.
The atmosphere was at a fever pitch from the beginning. Both schools arrived at the game well before the gates opened, and the banter began. Student sections were jawing at each other in line, chanting in support of their team, and, of course, booing the other students. Once the doors opened, the sprint was on. Both cheering sections sprinted to their respective sides of the arena, and nobody moved from their seat until the game was over. Due to Covid-19 capacity restrictions, only 1,200 tickets were sold to be inside Bartow Arena, but that didn’t stop Oak Mountain, who had a watch party at Walk-Ons, where every TV was tuned to the game.
The game started like every other game during the pandemic, with a sideline inbound by the “visiting team,” in this case, Enterprise. The Wildcats passed the ball around for over a minute, before ultimately missing the game’s first shot. On the other end, something all too familiar happened for Oak Mountain. Will Shaver and Brady Dunn got tangled up trying to get away from a defender, and Dunn went down hard, grabbing his left knee, grimacing in pain, and emotional, as he knew his state title game was over before it really even began. Quickly responding from the injury, Evan Smith took it to the rack, putting the Eagles up 2-0, with 6:47 to go in the first. That would be just about it for the quarter. The two teams combined for 8 turnovers and shot a combined 4-14 from the floor. Oak Mountain held a slim 7-3 lead after the first eight minutes were done.
The second quarter was even uglier offensively. Oak Mountain made 1 of 13 field goals, scoring it with 11 seconds to go in the half. Enterprise wasn’t much better. The Wildcats went 2-11 in the period, tacking on one free throw, to go to the locker room trailing 11-8. At the end of the half, neither team was shooting over 22%, and only one three had gone through the nylon, a Wilder Evers three late in the first. The bad offensive showings could certainly be blamed on the great defenses, forcing a combined 13 turnovers, and not giving any easy looks.
The second half was a complete 180 from the first. After two early baskets by Joshua McCray and Jalen Cunningham, the Wildcats were only down one. This is where Matthew Heiberger and Noah Young came up huge for the first of two times in this game. Heiberger hit a three, and Young followed it up less than a minute later, giving the Eagles a 19-12 lead with 5:07 to go in the period. Enterprise would then go on an 8-3 run to end the quarter, and Oak Mountain led 22-20 after 3.
The Wildcats picked up where they left off, sprinting to a 7-0 run in the first 2:15 of the final quarter, claiming their first lead of the game at 27-22. Here come Heiberger and Young for the Eagles, again. Matthew Heiberger nailed a three, followed by a crazy layup by Wilder Evers, and we were suddenly tied at 29, with 3:23 to go. McCray put the Cats up two with a layup, and then came the biggest shot of Noah Young’s career. Evan Smith gave him a handoff out of a screen, and Young splashed home a three, to give the Eagles a 32-31 lead, and they would never relinquish that lead.
When the final horn sounded, the celebration and emotions took over Bartow Arena. Even in this time of social distancing, many, including myself could be seen hugging and crying in the immediate aftermath of this incredible game. This win didn’t just signify a championship for this team, but it validated the work of Nelson, Love, and Sullivan, and every other person to pass through the program. It gave the entire Oak Mountain community a sense of newfound pride, and proved to many around Birmingham that the Eagles are on the rise, and not just on the hardwood.
The future looks astonishingly bright for Oak Mountain, as they only graduate three seniors this year, Connor Freel, Colin Patrick, and Noah Young. Of the three, Young was the only one to see any action during the final two games of the year. Oak Mountain will return a vast amount of talent, and the coaching staff will develop whatever they need moving forward. Look out for the Eagles next year, they might just go back-to-back.