Game of the Week: Smiths Station excited to reverse trend against Opelika

dmitchell@ledger-enquirerOctober 10, 2013 

Examining Smiths Station’s history against Opelika is a bit like reading an obituary.

In the 21 times the teams have met, the Bulldogs have won 20, including all 16 meetings since 1994.

Over the teams’ histories, Smiths Station (6-0, 4-0) has broken 20 points only twice, in a 24-10 win in 1994 and a 27-21 loss in 2010. Opelika’s (6-0, 4-0) average margin of victory is 23 points at 30-7.

It’s a one-sided history, one that many have a hard time believing will change anytime soon. And yet, Smiths Station players are confident they can reverse the trend to end a 16-game losing streak and put life into an annual game that has yet to become a true rivalry on Friday when the two teams meet in Opelika.

“We’re just ready to play them,” linebacker Anfernee Moffett said. “Everyone is saying we’re going to lose, but I believe we can beat them.”

This matchup will feature the Nos. 3 (Opelika) and 5 (Smiths Station) teams in Class 6A.

Still, there’s a big reason why Moffett and others share the belief things can change for the Panthers, and it begins with the defense.

Through six games, the unit has proven it can slow down just about any offense it faces. Enterprise scored 28 in Smiths Station’s opening-week victory, but since then only Auburn has broken 15. The Tigers scored 18, six of which came on a kickoff return late in the action.

Some may view the Panthers’ success, particularly on defense, as an aberration, but coach Mark Rose stressed this is something that has been building within the program for years.

“They’ve earned the opportunity to have the top ballgame in the state,” Rose said of his team. “They’ve earned it over six years in the weight room. … They’ve played together their whole lives, been loyal to each other and the program.”

They are flying to the ball and creating turnovers, Rose said. Using an old phrase by Pat Dye, Rose said that at the end of the play, you could throw a blanket over the ball and cover all 11 defenders.

It began in the weight room in middle school, when the majority of these players began playing together. Over time, it turned into improvement on the field. Now, the team is loaded with senior experience and three-year starters, creating a team that is putting together much more than just a lucky six-game winning streak.

“Playing together, we get real confident each week,” linebacker Amonte Caban said. “We know we can hang around with the top teams in the state.”

The Panthers proved that with a win over Auburn, now No. 7 in Class 6A, on Sept. 13. Now, this game will be the biggest of the year. Rose looks at it a different way, though.

“When you keep winning, they get bigger and bigger,” he said. “No question, this is the top game in Alabama. It’s for the region lead with two undefeated teams left. It’s a huge ballgame.”

To simply be considered among the elite has been a rewarding experience for the team, but the players are far from satisfied.

“There are still some people out there who doubt us,” Caban said.

That dwindling contingent would drop to zero with a win over the Bulldogs.

Not that a win would clinch everything for Smiths Station. This game is only the first of three in a difficult stretch that includes Opelika, Carver-Montgomery and Central.

Sure, it could potentially clinch an elusive playoff spot, but the Panthers have their eyes on a much bigger prize.

“My thing about difficult stretches is, everything we’ve done here is to win a state championship,” Rose said. “And you can’t win one unless you play five weeks. So if you can’t play three, you’re in trouble. … These guys have to get up and play every Friday night.”

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