The Meridian Star
Before the 2013-14 high school football season started, Newton County head coach Jackie Williamson said Northeast Lauderdale and Northeast Jones were the two teams capable of standing in the Cougars way of the playoffs. Scheduling didn't do Newton County any favors as it will face the two schools in back-to-back weeks this fall.
The battle starts this week when Newton County crosses county lines to take on Northeast Lauderdale on Friday night.
Given the two teams' history against each other and how this season has played out, anything is possible on the gridiron.
Williamson said last year's 21-17 loss to Northeast – on the last play of the game – virtually knocked the Cougars out of the playoff hunt.
“Ever game as far as district games are important,” he said. “We still remember how bad it felt leading the whole entire ball game, not playing very good at all, and end up losing the game on the last play. That was hard for our kids to get over with … we've shown that play over and over again this week.”
This year, Williamson is hoping for the opposite – a distanced win. The biggest road block could be on their own sidelines with injuries. The Cougars will be down defensive back and wide receiver Jamoral Graham (broken finger), offensive linemen Jacob Mott (broken arm) and kicker Bryden Reed (concussion).
“We're not going to lay down and cry about what our situation is, we're going to pull up our boot straps and get busy,” Williamson said. “We're actually treating it like round one of the playoffs right now.”
Even after the injuries, Trojan head coach Curt Blackburn said he expects a well matched game.
“I like a chances actually,” he said. “It's going to be a hard fought game... I feel like we match up pretty well. Their strengths are our strengths.”
Here are five things to watch for in Friday night's game.
1) Do-it-all: Newton County linebacker Demetrius Gooden will see plenty of game time this week. Williamson has handed him Friday's all kicking and punting duties in Reed's absence. The added jobs will put him on all sides of the ball – offense, defense and specialty teams.
2) Going deep: Northeast quarterback Troy Neely got in good reps last week despite losing 35-21 to Greene County. Blackburn said Neely threw for two touchdowns and roughly 200 yards on Friday night.
3) Back in action: Both sidelines are welcoming back key players that their respective coaches will rely on this week. For the Trojans, running back Stevie Sanders should be as close 100 percent as possible since going down with an MCL sprain in Week 3. On the Cougars' sideline, DeRyan Wansley is back from a twisted ankle and Williamson said he's running his best this season.
4) Front and center: The Trojans have a strong offensive line and both coaches acknowledged it this week. However, neither said it was going to be the difference maker.
“We've faced some big teams already this year in our non-district scheduling,” Williamson said. “We feel confident to play against teams are bigger than us.”
Blackburn said Newton County will be just as challenging because they are solid all across the depth chart.
“We put a good stock into our O-line which should be a good battle,” he said.
5) Pinned: Newton County's Jamoral Graham broke his finger in two places requiring surgery. Williamson said Graham is definitely out the rest of the regular season because of the type and location of the fractures. It required two pins to set the bones.
“They got everything back together,” Williamson said. “Still hoping on playoffs.”