Smiths Station football hasn’t hosted a playoff game since 1997. Russell County hasn’t played one since 2001. In its third season of existence, Calvary Christian has never made it past the ICSGA semifinals.
All three could change on Friday.
The Panthers and Warriors will open the AHSAA playoffs, with the former hosting Alma Bryant and the latter travelling to Homewood. Calvary Christian will face defending ICSGA champion Loganville Christian on the road.
Here’s a preview of what’s on the line for each.
Smiths Station vs. Alma Bryant
Panthers coach Mark Rose said he has never seen as much excitement surrounding Smiths Station football as he does right now. Not even during the team’s seven-game winning streak to begin the season.
Two losses that kept them from winning the region championship has done very little to temper any expectations.
“When you go that long without a home playoff game, what else needs to be said?” Rose asked. “The energy level is at an all-time high. We’ve still got our goals in front of us, so they’re pumped.”
Smiths Station’s goal, of course, is a state championship, something many began to see as a realistic possibility when the team was 7-0 and ranked No. 2 in the state. Two losses may have knocked some people off the bandwagon, but Rose said his team has rebounded and is right where it needs to be.
“It was really big,” Rose said of the team’s win over Valley in the finale. “Our goal was to go out and play solid football like we did all year, and we did that against a quality football team. They came back, and they got after it. They got it fixed.”
The first test of the playoffs will be Alma Bryant, which is a 3-seed, but contended in a tough region.
“It’s a lot like our region,” Rose said. “The top four or five teams are areally good. They’re talented. They have a running back over 1,000 yards, two 6-foot-4 receivers, a big line, the quarterback is a good athlete. Defensively, they have a great front and an aggressive back seven. They’re a good all-around football team.”
At this point, Smiths Station won’t face many that aren’t.
“You’ve got to play your best every week,” Rose said. “One bad week now and it’s over. (The players) know what’s at stake. They’re a veteran team. It’s not going to take any miracles. We know we can play with the best in the state. It just takes us playing better each week.”
Russell County at Homewood
The odds have been against the Warriors all season long.
They dress only 46 players each game in a classification where the top teams regularly dress 80 or more.
Coming into the season, though, coach Demond McCoy made the determination that he would keep his best players on the field at all times. Players would get tired and bruised, but he knew, despite the dwindling numbers, his best could play with everyone.
The decision paid off as Russell County will play its first playoff game since 2001.
“It’s huge for our seniors,” McCoy said of the playoff berth. “Some of them have started every year since seventh grade and never had an opportunity to experience this. I’m so proud of these kids. We’re very excited.”
Once against, the odds will be against the Warriors, who play a top seed in Homewood. McCoy correctly pointed out, though, that his team has gone toe-to-toe with other talented teams like Valley, Central and Eufaula. All three ended in losses, but Russell County learned it has the ability to compete on the same field.
“If we play together as a team and execute on offense, on defense, we believe we can compete and play with anyone,” McCoy said. “We’ve played against some of the top teams in the state. If we believe we can win, if we execute, if we fight and if we’re a little lucky, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity.”
Calvary Christian at Loganville Christian
In its second year as a varsity program in 2012, Calvary Christian played in the ICSGA semifinals against Loganville Christian.
Coach Brian Osborne said in that game his players were in awe of the situation and fell behind 21-0 before they were able to get their footing in the game.
This year, expectations are different. The Knights plan to win.
“We have confidence,” Osborne said. “We know what to expect this year.”
What to expect is a game against the best team in the classification. Loganville Christian is the defending state champion, a team that already defeated the Knights 35-13 earlier this season. Osborne said his team is playing its best football of the season right now, however.
“Our offensive line has been blocking its best, opening a lot of holes,” he said. “Defensively, we’re stuffing the run. That’s our game plan every week.”
If it can execute that game plan, it can earn a trip to the ICSGA final, which will be played Nov. 16 at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium.
“Not many people get to play a state title in their home town,” Osborne said. “That’s the goal.”
Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ledgerenquirersports.