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October 1, 2013

PREP FOOTBALL: Russellville rematch key for Bearcats' playoff hopes

CULLMAN — It’s hard to believe an entire year has come and gone since Cullman sealed a thrilling 21-20 overtime victory at Russellville with a gutsy stop on a 2-point conversion from the 1, handing Mark Britton his 100th win with the program in the process.

The Bearcats have gone on to win a whopping nine games since, their longtime leader is now the school’s all-time winningest football coach and the Black and Gold are on a fast track to the playoffs with a perfect 3-0 start in Class 5A, Region 8 play.

A homecoming victory Friday in the Russellville rematch would all but wrap up a postseason spot and keep Cullman in control of its own destiny in a tight race for hosting rights.

“At the time, we felt like the Russellville game last year was so important to get into the playoffs,” Britton said. “Here we are a year from then, and I still think it’s important. Everybody’s chasing Muscle Shoals — us, Athens, Russellville — and when we go head-to-head like this week, whoever gets that win really will have a leg up.”

The Bearcats’ and Golden Tigers’ paths to this Week 6 showdown have been eerily similar. Both have a close win versus Walker and a loss to a 3A powerhouse on their respective rèsumès.

Russellville (3-2, 2-1) opened the season with a 20-17 defeat to 3A Deshler and beat Walker 20-14 just last week. Meanwhile, Cullman (4-1, 3-0) snuck by the Vikings 13-10 in its debut and was handed its first loss last Friday in a 28-10 decision against 3A No. 1 Madison Academy.

“They’ve got some things they’re maybe stronger than us in, and there’s some things I think we do maybe a little better than they do, but in the end, it’s just about a wash,” Britton said. “I think the outcome of the game will probably be determined by who makes fewer mistakes and who can make a key play. Our guys are going to have to have a great week of preparation and then take it to the game and execute.”

Look no further than place kicker Clay McNatt to find the MVP in the Golden Tigers’ win over Walker. The senior was good on field goals of 32 and 42 yards, knocked through two extra points and contributed two potentially touchdown-saving tackles in the open field to finish as Russellville’s shining star on a night the team’s defense forced four turnovers.

The Bearcats touted a three-point play of their own this past week when Chayse Freeman booted through a 34-yarder versus the Mustangs.

This won’t be the first time the Black and Gold face a team fielding a kid with a strong leg, either. A mere two weeks ago, Jack Waterman was responsible for then-No. 5 Hartselle’s only points in a 14-6 loss to Cullman. The kicker made field goals of 24 and 44 yards.

“It’s another dimension you’ve got to be concerned about, especially in a game I think is going to be as tight as this game is going to be,” Britton said of McNatt and the Golden Tigers. “He’s got great range. The ability to get down inside the 35-yard line and come away with points is a tremendous positive for your team.”

While Russellville is currently riding a three-game winning streak, the Bearcats are still smarting from their first loss of the season last Friday. Considering Madison Academy’s massive linemen, SEC-quality running backs and overall athleticism, though, Britton said the Black and Gold aren’t hanging their heads too low.

“They’re the best team we’ve played this year in our first five games,” he said. “No. 1 (Kerryon Johnson) is the best athlete regardless of where you put him on the field. You put him out at wide receiver, you put him at running back and you’ve got to have a plan for that guy. And we did, but they throw a jump ball out there about 12 feet, our guys just can’t go up that high and get it. With that kind of play, you’ve got to tip your hat to your opponent.”

Cullman is 2-11 all-time against the Golden Tigers. Last year’s knee-knocker snapped a 26-year drought versus Russellville. The Bearcats’ only other series win came in the form of a 3-0 final in the second round of the playoffs in 1986.

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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