Nov. 9—It wasn't that long ago that Austin was dominating in the playoffs.
From 2015-17, the Black Bears won eight playoff games, advancing to the quarterfinals once and the semifinals twice.
However, things haven't quite been the same since.
In 2018, Austin moved to Class 7A, where it's the second-smallest school in the classification.
The Black Bears have still found success, winning seven games three times and eight games twice, including this season. They've also won two region championships.
One thing they haven't been able to replicate though is success in the postseason. Since moving up to Class 7A, Austin is 0-4 in the playoffs, including three home losses.
It's not as if it's just an Austin thing. Since the creation of Class 7A in 2014, teams from north Alabama are a combined 4-31 in the playoffs vs. Birmingham-area schools. But for an Austin program that had begun to grow accustomed to deep playoff runs, 0-4 doesn't sit right.
"There's a lot of big names in Birmingham. I think when people hear a Birmingham team is coming to play us, they automatically write us off," Austin defensive back Braylon Payton said.
That narrative is exactly what Austin's players and coaches are trying to change. This week Austin is set to host Vestavia Hills in the first round of the playoffs. It's a rematch of last year, which Austin lost 52-10.
Austin players aren't shying away from the fact that they're winless in the 7A playoffs. The Black Bears have been working toward this game since the end of last season.
"It's a driving force for us," senior receiver Jaxon Potter said. "Trying to be the first Austin team to win a 7A playoff game, it's a big deal."
Friday night might be Austin's best chance yet. The Black Bears are on a six-game winning streak in which they've outscored their opponents by a combined 272-81.
They feel they're in a better place this year compared to last season prior to their game vs. Vestavia Hills.
"I felt like last year we peaked in games 7-9 and slid the rest of the way," Austin head coach Jeremy Perkins said. "This year I feel like our best football is still ahead of us."
Players' confidence is at an all-time high as well, buoyed by the team's six-game win streak.
"The momentum has changed since we lost those two games (Sparkman and Florence)," Payton said. "Our leadership and focus have been great, and that's led to better execution. We all feel more confident than we ever have before."
It's not just the intangibles that have changed for Austin, but the product on the field. In their four 7A playoff games so far, Austin has surrendered an average of 45 points. So far this season, the defense is allowing just 14 points a game.
"I think that can really make a difference in the playoffs this year," Payton said. "We have a great game plan, and we just need to execute."
Another issue that has plagued Austin in playoff games is bad starts. In last year's game, Vestavia Hills scored the first 17 points and led 31-0 at halftime.
This season, the Black Bears have been better at starting fast. Against James Clemens, they hit a 67-yard pass on the first play of the game and scored a play later. A week later against Bob Jones, they built a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter.
"It's important to start the game well. We've started the game struggling in the past, and our confidence level has dropped," Perkins said. "We have to start the game fast."
So is this the year Austin finally pulls out a 7A playoff win?
"We've been working towards this for a long time," Potter said. "It's time to get it done."
—firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2395. Twitter @CalebSuggs2