By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
At this time last year, the Vinemont football team was 3-0 for the first time since 2003 and ranked for the first time since 2004. The community was pouring on the praise, and the Eagles had every reason to believe every word of it.
And then came the Hanceville game, a 34-6 Bulldog blowout Vinemont coach Alan Scott called a “hit in the mouth.”
“Hanceville had not had success at that point during the year, but when they came out against us, it was almost like an animal that had been backed up in a corner,” he said of the then-winless Purple and Gold. “Their game was to run it directly at us, and they did. And when we tried to run the ball, we couldn’t. In the end, they ran us out of the stadium.”
It’s been almost 365 days since that Cullman County contest, and the Eagles are ready to host Hanceville in a crucial Class 3A, Region 7 rematch this Friday. Vinemont is once again 3-0, and its players are another year older and closer than ever as brothers as teammates.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are a much-improved 2-1, with wins against Hamilton and Fairview and an overtime loss to Good Hope.
“Our kids understand what they’re getting when they play Hanceville. It’s going to be a physical, physical game,” Scott said. “They’ve been in a lot of big games this year already. Those guys are very salty and very seasoned.”
Ty Jones and Tyler Boland made for one of the more formidable rushing duos in the state during the 2012 season, but that didn’t much matter to the Bulldog D last September. Aside from a late 80-yard touchdown run down the right sideline by Boland, the tailback tandem’s contributions were kept to a minimum.
This time around, All-State offensive lineman Marcus Clarke and his fellow big boys up front want to prove the Eagles are capable of running the ball against every opponent — and that includes Hanceville.
“Last year, we just couldn’t get the edge. This year, we’ve been working a lot on it,” the senior said. “We’re going to try and get the edge, just run the ball and be Vinemont.”
The Red and White have been enjoying Boland’s earlier-than-anticipated return from a second major knee injury in a five-month span. The senior speedster had a pair of first-half interceptions in a Week 2 home win against Danville and then scored on runs of 43, 46 and 47 yards in a 19-15 road triumph over Cordova last Friday.
Boland finished with 164 yards on eight carries before leaving with an ankle injury in the third quarter. On Tuesday, Scott said he was still evaluating whether Boland would be healthy enough to play against the Bulldogs.
“Obviously last week when you look at the box score, he accounted for all of our points on offense,” the third-year coach said of Boland. “He’s an explosive player, he makes good things happen when he’s around the football, and it’s always good to look out and see him on the field.
“But it’s the next man up. We can’t dwell on if Tyler can’t play this week. The next guy has got to be up and ready to go, and I feel confident our guys are going to be prepared.”
Vinemont initially wasn’t sure when Boland would be back, whether it was Week 5 or at all, so any early contest he’s able to suit up for is a bonus at this point. Whether he ultimately plays Friday or not, just having Boland in the locker room and the sidelines has served as motivation for his teammates.
“When he got hurt last year at Randolph, that kind of devastated us,” said Clarke, who’s been friends with Boland since kindergarten. “This year, he had so much going for him when he got injured, it was kind of devastating, but we knew he’d be OK. When he finally told us he could be back, it gave us high spirits.”
Even when Boland is in the lineup, the Eagles don’t operate as a one-back program. This year, they’ve been splitting the load between players like Taylor Evans, John Michael Dye, Orey Woods and Trey Guthery.
“I’m 100 percent confident in whoever is back there,” Clarke said.
Of the group, Evans has so far had a breakout season at this early juncture in the 2013 campaign, racking up rushing yards right and left and making big-time plays on defense.
The senior attributes his rise to the faith he has in his teammates.
“I try to make sure they know that I trust in them, and they know they can trust in me,” Evans said.
Boland laid the groundwork for last week’s win with his offensive outburst, but Vinemont’s D did the rest of the heavy lifting, holding strong on a clutch goal-line stand in the fourth quarter to seal the four-point victory.
“Our kids made the plays at the end of the game. You can’t deny that,” Scott said. “I’m definitely proud of the way our guys handled that situation. It has to give you confidence, but at the same time, when you look at Hanceville on film, their ability to run the ball, their ability to throw the ball is very tremendous with the athletes they have.”
After the way the 2012 meeting went for the Eagles, Evans is hoping the latest county clash can serve as more of a springboard to success for his team the rest of the season.
Vinemont is fighting for a second straight playoff berth.
“It’s huge for us because we had that devastating game last year,” Evans said. “But it builds on what we’ve gone through over the summer and stuff like that. I think it’ll be a big shot for us to kind of carry our momentum into more games in the future.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.