By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
The bodies of Fairview's football players were in West Point for a classic county matchup but their minds were already in Alexandria.
Instead of taking the Warriors seriously during the last week of the 2011 regular season, the Aggies focused solely on their first-round playoff foe, allowing West Point to walk away with a 37-36 shocker.
As both teams prepare to meet Friday for the first time since that upset, wide receiver Ethan Widner vowed the Purple and Gold won't make the mistake of overlooking the Warriors a second time.
“We were already looking forward to the playoffs, looking ahead a week,” he said. “It won't happen again this year, though. We're all just focused on West Point.”
Nearly a year has passed since the loss, and Fairview coach George Redding has yet to offer a single excuse for his team's disappointing performance. He gives all the credit to the Warriors, openly admitting they simply made more plays than his Aggies.
“I don't think we had a lack of preparation or anything last year,” Redding said. “It was one of of those deals where West Point just outplayed us.”
Unsurprisingly, the sixth-year coach also had plenty of compliments for Mark Laney, who helped deliver the defeat with lengthy field goals of 50 and 48 yards. The All-State kicker, who played all year despite suffering an ACL tear on his kicking leg during the preseason, also added a 23-yarder and four extra points to account for 13 points all on his own.
“He had some unbelievable kicks last year,” Redding said of Laney, who graduated from West Point this past May. “The thing is, they gave their guy a chance to make plays, and he stepped up and made them.”
Widner could only describe the aftermath of last year's loss as disappointing, while lineman Jake Roberts confided it was a “huge letdown.”
Luke Bailey's assessment of “horrible” was right on track with his teammates. The winningest quarterback to ever don the Purple and Gold said he's had Friday's matchup circled on his calendar all year.
“You don't think about it every week, but you're just like, 'We have to beat West Point,'” Bailey said. “It's a rivalry game that goes back to Pee Wees, whenever we were the finalists in the championship every year. It just goes back to them days.”
Just like in 2011, the Aggies enter Week 10 against the Warriors knowing they've already secured an 11th game. That predicament ultimately got Fairview in a whole lot of trouble, as it lost the nail-biter to West Point and then fell 55-41 to Alexandria on the road in the first round.
With a home game versus Munford staring the Aggies in the face this time around, Redding wants to make sure his players don't get ahead of themselves.
“By no means are we looking past it,” the coach said of this week's ballgame. “We are excited about being in the playoffs, excited about hosting. But that's next week. One-hundred percent of our focus is on Week 10 and West Point here.”
Running back Marco Rodriguez said a win over the Warriors would undoubtedly give Fairview a much-needed boost of confidence, something Redding admitted was missing against Alexandria last year until the Valley Cubs had already pulled away.
“Definitely anytime you can win can help set up momentum going in,” the coach said. “So by all means, we want to win this week because I think it would help keep things moving forward and keep things at the level we need them to be at in order to make a run in the playoffs.”
The Warriors have struggled through an extremely difficult Class 5A, Region 8 schedule this year, losing in lopsided fashion to powerhouses Cullman, Russellville, Hartselle and Muscle Shoals, as well as to second-tier talent like Athens and East Limestone.
Knowing the gauntlet West Point's run through this year gives Redding even more respect for his team's opponent.
“West Point has beaten us far more than we've beaten them over the years,” the coach said, referring to the Warriors' 26-15 overall advantage in the series. “They're the biggest school in the county, and they play unbelievable talent week in and week out. When they get into this game against us, the game is probably going to slow down for them a little bit, which is an advantage. But we see some good talent throughout the year as well.”
Redding's boys have conquered all but two of those talented teams — Guntersville and No. 1 Oneonta — this year, breaking the recent perception that Fairview doesn't show up for big games by beating Saint Clair County and Sardis.
Like the key for Fairview against West Point, Bailey believes the Aggies' success has boiled down to this group's ability to focus.
“You can tell how everybody is more prepared mentally and physically this year,” the All-State quarterback said. “This is probably the strongest team we've had in a long time to be honest.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.