At the end of a five-hour plus bus trip Friday night, Russell Christian Academy will basically be looking in a mirror when it matches up against host Marvell (Ark.) Academy.
The Warriors and Eagles each rely on a single-wing offense that rides a strong ground game. And both teams have been very successful as Russell enters 7-0 and second in the MAIS 8-Man District 1 race with a 4-0 division mark. The Eagles are right behind at 5-1 overall and 3-1 in the division.
“They are just some pretty good football players and have good size on the lines and pretty decent running backs,” Russell coach Nate Ballard said. “They run sweeps similar to ours and traps similar to ours, but they are much improved. They have a good sized offensive line that likes to push people around and their backs don't have what I call game-breaking speed but they get the job done.”
That similar style has come in handy during practice. Rather than working against an opponents' offense, the Warriors have just had extra time running their own sets. That has led to additional reps for second-string players and should mean execution is even more paramount Friday.
“I think the biggest thing is how we handle the trip and the travel,” Ballard added. “We're treating it as a business trip. We have to be focused and stop the run and execute well on offense. But the biggest thing will be that long trip.”
While handling a long bus ride is the next challenge in front of the Warriors, they have certainly handled everything else they've faced. After earning their first winning record and playoff berth a year ago, the Warriors have continued to build. Last week's 45-0 win against Central Academy set a new school record for wins and Russell has its sights set on more.
“I think we've handled it because we weren't happy with how last year finished,” Ballard said. “We were happy we made the playoffs and had a winning season but we feel we could have done more. I think our kids, our parents and our fanbase came back hungry.
“I think we've handled it so well because we expected it.”
— Jamie Wachter
Cougars expect another battle against Rams
Calvary Christian and Kemper Academy meet for the second time this season Friday when the Cougars make the short trip to DeKalb. And Calvary coach Kirby Newell expects nothing different when facing the 4-3 Rams.
“The same thing we got in the first game, we don't expect anything different,” Newell said. “We know they are going to run that counter trap. Pete (McCleskey)'s been running that since he's been there. We know we have to stop the counter trap and we can't give up any big pass plays. They lull you to death by running the ball and the next thing you know, they will hit one of the tight ends deep.”
Kemper used that plan to beat Calvary 42-16 on Aug. 23. That was part of a 4-1 start for the Rams, however the two local rivals meet while looking to break losing skids this time. KA has lost its past two and is just 2-2 in MAIS 8-Man District 1, while the 2-5 Cougars have lost three straight and are 1-3 in the division.
A win is crucial to both team's playoff hopes. Calvary closes the regular season with Delta Academy, 2-3 in the division and right in the mix for the fourth and final playoff spot along with the Cougars and Rams, and winless Central Academy. Kemper, meanwhile, has unbeaten Russell Christian and one-loss Marvell (Ark.) Academy remaining.
“We have our heads up at 2-5,” Newell added. “We left a little something out there last Friday night. But the kids have kept their heads up and spirits are high.
“We're just going to keep competing.”
In order to keep its postseason dreams alive, Calvary plans to rely on the same mission it had going into last week's 40-20 loss to Marvell: establish the running game behind Josh Carraway and get improved tackling on defense.
“We're just going to go into the game, hoping to try and establish something running the ball and hope we tackle better,” Newell said. “It's pretty much the same scenario.”
–– Jamie Wachter
Raiders readying for playoff push
As far as Lamar is concerned, there is just one game left before the playoffs begin.
After East Rankin Academy visits Grey Cobb Field at 7 p.m. Friday, the 6-1 Raiders close out the regular season with its three MAIS Division 4-AA games, or its three chances to make sure the postseason follows.
“We have just this one week left until we enter the playoffs, and that's really how we treat our division games,” Lamar coach Mac Barnes said.
The good news with that is Lamar is heading into the stretch run playing some of its best football. Following their lone setback to two-time defending Class AAA, Division 1 champion Jackson Academy, the Raiders have rebounded to roll off lopsided wins against Leake Academy and Newton County Academy.
“We've played well the past two games,” he said. “The game against JA, I think we saw some things that we did well and we saw some things we did bad and that if we corrected some things we could play really well against some teams. The last two weeks against Leake and Newton, we've really played well.
“I thought we've played really well on the defensive side of the ball. The last two games we've played extremely well against the run and that's what we need to do. I've thought these past two games we've been a physical team and that's something that hasn't always been our strong suit.
“We're playing football right now. And that's the bottom line. You can talk about size and speed and stats, but football is a hard, tough game and that's how we're playing it right now.”
One aspect that has helped Lamar's strong play has been staying healthy. With just a 27-man roster, the Raiders lack depth to withstand injury woes. However, outside of losing Shane Blanton to a season-ending injury in that loss to JA on Sept. 14, the Raiders have remained healthy. That said, Lamar may play this week without Zack Broadway, who is battling a back problem.
“Zach missed the whole second half last week, and we're unsure of his status for this week,” Barnes added. “He thinks he'll be able to go, but we'll have to wait and see.”
–– Jamie Wachter
Trojans wont settle for small improvement
Northeast Lauderdale High School will look to get back on track this week, as head coach Curt Blackburn and the Trojans look to rebound from last week's 34-12 loss to Quitman in the district opener. This week Northeast will travel to Newton County to take on a 4-2 Cougar team, stacked with talent on both sides of the ball.
“They are a good team,” Blackburn said. “They have a couple of explosive players on offense that really worry you. (Jamoral Graham) and (Rod Smith)are their main two on offense. Their quarterback (Jacob Edwards) isn't too bad either, especially for a freshman quarterback.”
One key for the Trojan defense will be to fluster Edwards and force him out of his comfort zone. If Northeast can make the young quarterback into tough situations, Blackburn said he hopes to capitalize on mistakes and turnovers.
“We want to get pressure on him when he is throwing passes,” Blackburn said. “We also just got to be aware of where their play-makers are lined up at. They use a lot of formations to get him the ball in different situations.”
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans will look to do what they do best and run the ball to utilize their speed in the backfield.
“We need to get (Demetrius Gooden) he is one of their better defensive players,” Blackburn said. “We have to get him blocked, that is a key. Hopefully we will be able to run the ball on them a little bit and give them a few things they haven't seen.”
While Blackburn and the Trojans have already tripled their win total from last season, the head coach isn't about to call this season a success already. Blackburn said he is stressing to his team to not get complacent and push themselves to achieve even more success.
“I'm tired of people telling me you have already won twice as many as last year,” Blackburn said. “That's not why I took the job. If all I wanted to do was double our wins from last year I would have never even applied for the job. We want to get better and build a program that wins year in and year out.”
–– Tony Tsoukalas
Tigers prepare for tough test in Philly
Southeast Lauderdale head coach Charles Black preached to his team before its district-opening win against Kemper County, district play is a whole new season.
Now, in the second game of that new season, the Tigers — who are 2-5 overall but 1-0 in Division 5-3A following the 38-12 win against the Wildcats, snapping a three-game losing streak to Kemper — will be faced with their toughest task to date — stopping defending district champ Philadelphia. The Tornadoes opened division play last week with a 38-0 win against Newton, improving to 7-0 overall and their 35th straight regular season win and 20th straight victory in division contests.
“We are going to have to really play a great game,” Black said. “Philadelphia is a hard-nosed team, and we are going to have to be mistake free.”
When facing the Tornado defense, it is impossible to overlook the talent at cornerback. Montreal Jordan and Anthony Triplett make up one one of the best secondaries in the state and have shut down opponents in the air this season.
However, the Tigers have had success of their own throwing the ball this season. Black said he will not shy away from the pass if needed and wants to continue to play his game no matter the opposition.
“We are just going to have to be smart about it,” Black said. “We are going to continue to do what we do. We are still going to continue to do what we need to to win.”
As Southeast prepares to host the Tornadoes Friday night, Black said he sees a difference in the team he has now and the team that started the season.
Friday, the Tigers will look to prove, they are a much better team than their 2-5 indicates and perhaps pull one of the biggest upsets of the year.
“We are maturing a little bit more as the season goes on,” Black said. “Some of the kids are realizing what it takes to make it happen. We are just improving.”
— Tony Tsoukalas
Knights look to end turnover problem
West Lauderdale High School will look to get its first district win on Friday, as the Knights take on visiting Northeast Jones High School in Collinsville.
The Tigers — who enter at 1-0 in Division 5-4A play following a 30-25 win against Newton County a week ago, and 5-2 overall — will be a a tough test for head coach Stan McCain and the Knights, even tougher will be bringing down Northeast Jones quarterback James Ayers.
The speedy quarterback has proved tough to tackle this season, and when opponents don't bring him down, Ayers has made them pay with his legs.
“I hope we can tackle him,” McCain said. “He is good with the ball, and he can run. He also has a good arm, and he throws the ball real well. He is definitely what makes their offense go.”
Last week it was turnovers that haunted the Knights during their 33-9 loss to Laurel. West is 2-4 overall after having its two-game winning streak snapped in the division opener.
McCain said he knows his Knights can play with anybody on their schedule if they learn to maintain possession of the football.
“Hopefully they learned some lessons from last game,” McCain said. “We were probably out-manned, but they gave us some opportunities that we didn't take advantage of. It could have went either way. I just hope our kids understand that if we go out there and don't turn the ball over and play hard, we are going to have a chance.”
The Knights are working on not turning the ball over in practice. However it is the decisions the players make in game-time situations that will ultimately determine if West can shake its turnover problem. McCain said he sees improvement in the team and looks for the Knights to get better as they move further into district play.
“It's a process,” McCain said. “They have got to see a little bit more, but it is going to be OK.”
— Tony Tsoukalas