Central plays at region champion Spain Parkon Friday
By DAVID MITCHELL
Central High players and coaches understand the difficult task that awaits them Friday night.
Traveling to play a No. 1 seed, Spain Park, in the first round of the Alabama Class 6A state playoffs, the Red Devils, a 4 seed, know the level of talent and the environment they will be up against.
And they don't really care.
It's not that they don't appreciate how good their opponent is -- they do. It's simply that Central knows its own talent and the preparation it is putting in.
"Our approach is to win the game," offensive coordinator Ryan Nelson said. "We have a tall task ahead, travelling on the road against a really good football team. It's a tough test, but we have some guys that, I believe, will rise to the challenge."
The season has been a bit of a mini-rollercoaster at times for Central (7-3). It has big wins against teams like Carver-Montgomery and Smiths Station, but also got blown out by Opelika and lost a heartbreaker to Auburn.
Most recently, the Red Devils came up short against Stanhope Elmore, the 4 seed out of Region 4, the same region that produced Spain Park.
Nelson, as well as some players, believes the latter loss may serve as a beneficial reality check for a team that may have fallen asleep after clinching the playoffs the week before.
"The biggest benefit is that it brought us back down from
that big win over Smiths Station," Nelson said. "It helped level our guys' heads and remember that we have to come out and play every week. It was very humbling."
Sophomore athlete Traveon Samuel said it was a good gauge for the team as it enters the state playoffs.
"It told us where we were against a good playoff team," he said, noting that the loss has made them work harder in practice.
"We had a big head," defensive back Chris James added. "It leveled us out, I think."
Nelson said that there wasn't a real concern about the momentum of going into the playoffs coming off of a loss.
After all, he noted, the team ended the regular season with a big win over Oxford in 2010, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs, while, in 2011, a week-10 loss translated to a run to the state semifinals.
"You just never know," he said.
And while the team may not yet know how it will respond in a difficult opening-round test, Nelson said one thing was clear.
"Our guys fully expect to win this game," he said. "We aren't going up there to be satisfied. We expect to win, we're going to win and anything less is a letdown. It's a business trip, and we need to go take care of business."
Both Nelson and his players recognize what Spain Park (8-2) brings to the table, of course.
It features an offense that broke 30 points in six of its 10 games in the regular season, and it is well-coached.
"I can't say enough about Spain Park," Nelson said. "They're an extremely well-coached football team. The offense is one of the top in the state. It's just a good football team. We just need to come out prepared."
Both Samuel and James agreed that, in order to do that, they had to focus on their own sideline rather than Spain Park's.
"We have to practice hard and prepare for the game more than anything," Samuel said. "We can't be worried too much about them."
James noted the team's affinity for passing the football and said that a lot would be expected from the defensive backs, but he, too, said Central needed to focus on itself.
"We really haven't had a complete game yet," he said. "We've got to put the pieces together. If we do, we can do well."
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571