Cullman enters Friday night’s matchup with Athens just one win away from securing a home playoff contest, as well as setting up a much-anticipated game at Muscle Shoals the following week to see which team would stake claim to the Class 5A, Region 8 crown.
Don’t even think about mentioning the latter to Mark Britton, however, because the longtime Bearcat coach isn’t about to let his team make the mistake of overlooking an opponent — especially not one as talent-laden as the Golden Eagles (5-2, 3-2).
When the No. 9 Black and Gold (6-1, 5-0) take the field against their fierce region foe, they won’t be thinking about what the future might hold. Instead, they’ll be doing everything possible to make sure there’s a future to be had — and hopefully one that includes vying for a spotless region record and title to boot.
“We aren't looking past them at all,” Britton said. “Athens is an extremely strong opponent. We are battling for position and this is the biggest game for us now. If we lose, the outcome of the Muscle Shoals game isn't as big. We’ve got to stay focused and take it one game at a time.”
The Golden Eagles have certainly given Britton and company fits in the past. Apart from last year’s 41-14 Bearcat wallop, the Black and Gold have dropped six of their last seven games to Athens — the lone victory during that span coming back in 2003.
Coach Allen Creasy’s squad also holds the all-time advantage over Cullman at 30-17-1 overall.
With history on the opponent’s side, Britton knows his players will need to be at their absolute best when the lights come on inside Oliver Woodard Stadium.
“Coach Creasy and his staff do a great job,” Britton said. “They're very balanced and volatile on offense, and their front four is as good as anybody's in our region. That No. 5 (Johnnie Anderson) in the secondary may be one of the best players in the state. They shut out Russellville last week, so we've got to find a way to manufacture points against them.”
One of the key components to combat any great defense is a sound running game. With senior Garrett Crider and junior Will Crenshaw splitting time in the backfield, the Bearcats hope to have a little more production than they did a season ago.
In fact, Crider knows firsthand just how stingy the Golden Eagles can be when it comes to giving up yards on the ground.
“Their defense, especially their run D, is really good,” he said. “We had trouble getting it going last year. Hopefully we can go out there Friday and do it a little better.”
For seniors like Crider, Alex Martin, Trey Moon, Mason Jones and Tyler Glenn, the most important thing is securing a home playoff game during their final season as Bearcats.
Should they do so, it would mark the sixth time in the past seven seasons the Black and Gold have played a first-round postseason contest on their home turf.
“We're eager to get out there,” Crider said. “Coaches have put a lot of emphasis on this game. We know that a home playoff game would be huge. If we win this game, we have the opportunity to go on and win the region next week, too.”
Added Britton: “It's definitely more enjoyable to play at home. If you are, you are usually playing one of the lower seeds in another region. We as a coaching staff have to get our kids well-prepared for the game.”
The Bearcats have been victorious this season by excelling in all phases of the game. Against Hartselle and Walker, it was a punishing defense that saved the day. However, against East Limestone and Lawrence County, it was the offense that took the reins in two runaway wins.
According to Britton, his team will have to “play well” in every phase of football on Friday if it hopes to come away with a victory and cause to celebrate.
“I can see this one being decided by something like a blocked extra point,” Britton said. “I think the teams are very evenly matched. These are the type of games you work for. You want to have these big games, and this is definitely as big as it gets for us right now.”
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.