By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
For Mark Britton and his coaching staff to experience something new at this late juncture in their lengthy careers at Cullman is really quite remarkable.
Win 100 games? Been there, done that.
Advance past the first round? They’ve made it tradition.
Shut out a postseason opponent? Now, there’s one feat Britton’s regime had not been able to pull off in his 12 seasons with the Bearcats.
Until last Friday.
The Black and Gold blew into Jasper for a second-round battle, followed defensive coordinator Matt Hopper’s gameplan to perfection and held Walker to less than 200 yards of total offense to blow out their heated rival by a 30-0 final. The shutout was Cullman’s first in the postseason since 2000, when Mike Bates led the Cats past Saks 13-0 in the opening round of his eighth and final season with the program.
“It’s pretty exciting. I think Coach Hopper and our defense did a great job,” Britton said. “When they’re pitching a shutout, it allows us offensively to maybe take a few more chances. I thought it was the most complete game, both sides of the ball and special teams, that we’ve put together this year.”
The entire D played a part in handing the Vikings a golden goose egg, but Michael Skinner emerged as the man of the hour with two second-half interceptions. The senior defensive back soared sky high for his first pick and then camped out under an overthrown pass for the second, which he returned 47 yards for Cullman’s final score of the game.
Skinner’s performance was impressive enough on its own, but knowing all he’s endured to get back on the field this year makes it even more special.
With nearly a week before the Bearcats were set to open the 2011 campaign against Sparkman, Skinner broke his arm severely enough to require surgery, ending his junior season before it could even begin. He could only watch from the sideline as his teammates charged to a 7-3 record and reached the second round of the playoffs.
The story has turned out to be completely different in 2012, however. Skinner returned healthy, more determined than ever and has been a big-time contributor to the Black and Gold’s success. No contributions were bigger than his pair of interceptions that propelled his team to this week’s quarterfinal matchup against McAdory.
“Michael is a competitor and a great kid,” Britton said. “You’re just excited for him to have a big night on such an important stage. It’s a big playoff game, it’s against a rival and then for him to take that last one back for a touchdown, that was super.”
With the way Skinner has held his own against wide receivers Troy Forrest and Houston Turner in practice, the Cullman coaching staff figured he’d be able to keep up with Walker’s biggest playmaker in Quadrekas Key.
They were right.
“He’s (Skinner’s) used to going against those bigger bodies,” Britton said. “It just worked out for us. We knew that if Walker got into a situation, their go-to guy would be No. 6 (Key), and that’s how we planned it.”
Getting the most out of the defense is nothing new for this year’s Bearcats, who have allowed 15 points a game through 12 contests. The unit has two shutouts and has only given up more than 21 points once this season. Cullman’s first-string D hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the team’s last three games versus Center Point, Arab and Walker.
There isn’t just one player Britton can credit for the sensational showing, either. Aside from Skinner, he’s been highly impressed with safety Trey Moon, who delivered a bone-jarring tackle late against the Vikings, and nose guard Hunter Riley.
Britton said defensive end play has improved over the course of the year, with senior Chris Johnson and Alex Martin leading the way. Freshman Justin Patterson has also pitched in at the position with senior Drew Ralph on the sideline all season because of a knee injury.
Chase Kennedy, Lucas McMinn, Joseph Gable and Richard Poston make up an extremely solid linebacking corps, and Britton said senior Reid Harrison has been invaluable at corner back, as has Josh Reed in the secondary.
“All those guys have done a great job,” the coach said. “It seems like a different kid each week seems to have a big play.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.