By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Meetings with Winfield weren’t exactly welcomed by Hanceville before 2011. But after five straight lopsided losses to open the series, the Bulldogs have turned the tide in their favor, forcing the Pirates to walk the plank each of the last two seasons.
Danny Miller is pretty sure he knows what’s helped swing the momentum toward his Hanceville squad.
“I think part of it is mental,” the coach said. “Our kids realize they can line up and play with those guys.”
Quarterback Caleb Hurst couldn’t agree more. He said the leadership from the Purple and Gold’s coaches and seniors have made the biggest impact in being prepared for generally strong programs like the Pirates.
“I just think the players finally bought in that we can actually be a good a good team if we had leaders and put in the work for it,” the senior said.
Hanceville isn’t the only squad heading into the second half with a full head of steam. The Bulldogs and Winfield are both 4-1, but the Pirates have yet to lose in three Class 3A, Region 7 contests. The Purple and Gold, Hamilton and Good Hope, meanwhile, have all beaten up on each other to sit in a three-way tie for second place with one loss apiece.
As far as the region is concerned, Miller called Friday’s matchup “the biggest game of the season by far.” The winner would obviously have a clearer path to a region title or, at the very least, the second seed, which also comes with hosting rights.
“This doesn’t determine the region champ, but it could go a long way down the road to determine it,” Miller said. “Whoever wins this game is going to have a little advantage on some people. It could get interesting for sure.”
Added Hurst: “From what I’ve heard, the talk coming from over there is they feel like they can win the region. I think we’ll have something to say about that.”
Winfield is averaging 13 points per game on defense against region opponents. The Pirates shut out 1A Brilliant in Week 1 and ran into 4A Haleyville last Friday to pick up their first defeat.
According to Miller, quarterback-turned-running back Xavier McCollum is the catalyst of a Winfield offense that relies on about three different boys in the backfield.
Just three? That’s small potatoes compared to Hanceville, which rolls with five kids who would never turn down a carry. Torrey Green, Brontae Harris and Carlos Chacon have been putting up big rushing numbers, while B.J. Smalls has also come through with clutch runs for the Bulldogs. To top it off, Hurst is just as much — if not more — of a threat to take off upfield than he is to throw to one of his many playmaking wide receivers.
“It’s a big luxury,” Miller said of his stable of running backs. “Somebody asked me why we used five different runners against Good Hope, and I said because that’s all we had. If I would’ve had six, we would’ve used them. It gives you an opportunity to get a guy in there that’s sort of fresh because most of them play both ways. It’s really worked well for us.”
All the success the Purple and Gold have been enjoying in the ground game must mean the offensive line has been doing a lot right.
Garrett Masters credited the unit’s early accomplishments to getting its blocking schemes down and putting every ounce of effort into opening holes for whoever is handed the ball. According to the senior, his line will need to push as hard as ever this Friday in order to counter a Pirate group that Masters has counted on to be physical throughout his prep career.
Though it might not be easy, Hurst is more than confident his O-line and tailbacks can get the job done.
“Our offensive line has been doing great,” the senior signal-caller said. “I think I’ve only been sacked once or twice all season. We have more than one running back, so they aren’t going to get tired. We’ll just keep rotating them in and get yards like normal.”
The 2013 campaign so far feels a lot like the magical ride Hanceville took its campaign on in 2011. The biggest difference? That bunch went undefeated in the regular season, whereas the current team already has a loss.
The Raiders outlasted the Bulldogs 28-20 in an overtime thriller back in Week 2.
“I told some people when we beat Hamilton, if we would’ve beat Good Hope, I’m not sure we’d have beat Hamilton that next week,” Miller said. “But it sort of put us in a hole, and our kids realized we can’t do what we did last year — take two region losses and try to come back from that.”
The Purple and Gold have used their fast-footed running backs, as well as a rock-solid turnover ratio, to bounce back from that defeat. They’ve taken advantage of 11 turnovers in respective wins against Hamilton (two), Vinemont (five) and West Point (four) since.
“I think that’s one of the things our kids take to heart,” Miller said of takeaways. “There’s an opportunity there to end drives for other people by doing that. Of course, people are always trying to do that to us, too (laughs).”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.