The high school football playoffs used to be about teams facing unfamiliar opponents from far-flung locales.
But in the interest of cutting down travel costs and increasing gate receipts, the TSSAA changed the bracket nearly a decade ago to one in which adjoining regions face off for the first three rounds, similar to the basketball regional tournament.
This has created numerous second- and third-round rematches between region rivals. Four weeks after fighting off Gordonsville 21-12 on the way to winning the 4-1A championship, undefeated Friendship Christian faces the prospect of having to do so again, this time to advance to the state quarterfinals.
“I’m not a big fan of that,” Commander coach John McNeal said of the rematches. “I don’t know what you can do. It’s not for me to decide.”
One advantage to the rematches is teams don’t have to spend time studying a team cold.
“Both of us are very familiar with each other,” said McNeal, whose 11-0 Commanders host 8-3 Gordonsville at 7 p.m. Friday at Pirtle Field. “When you’re familiar with each other, you’re getting more work in.
“When you’re facing a new opponent, you’re having to break down a bunch of new film.”
Since falling behind 21-0 to Friendship in the first quarter at Gordonsville on Oct. 14, the Tigers have been on a roll. They outscored the Commanders 12-0 the final three periods and have since dominated Watertown, Clay County and, in last week’s first round, a top-10 South Pittsburg team on the road. But McNeal reminds everyone FCS has been on a roll since August.
“They’re on a roll,” McNeal said of the Tigers. “We played well too. We had to face a tough Trousdale team (the next week). We won Week 10 (over Mt. Juliet Christian).
“For them, I’m sure they feel good about what they’ve done. But we’ve won, too. That game, we did what we had to do.”
It’s not secret to Gordonsville coach Bob Dillard the Commanders will run behind Jeremy Rickaway and John Markham, pass behind Jon Miller and play defense with middle linebacker Wade Mitchell and cornerback John Doak leading the way.
McNeal and defensive coordinator Duane Lowe are just as familiar with Gordonsville’s two-way threat at quarterback, Justin Smith, running backs Travis Alexander and Jordan Davis, receiver Bryce Randolph and a hard-hitting defense.
“We’ll do what we do,” McNeal said. “They know, and we know, there will be a few new things.
“At this point, we’ve done a lot through the whole 11 weeks. We’ve run some sets, the next week we didn’t run again. What we’ll do, you’ll have to be there Friday night and see.”
The Commanders have struggled with the sniffles this week. It was bad enough McNeal took the team to Gallatin’s indoor practice facility Tuesday to get them out of the rain. Injury-wise, only lineman Aaron Nations, lost for the season in the earlier meeting with Gordonsville, has been ruled out. Running back/defensive back Bryant Alsup, who missed last week’s 56-14 first-round win over Grace Baptist with a leg injury, was expected to play, McNeal said.
Mt. Juliet at Hillsboro
Mt. Juliet will also make a short bus ride. But the Golden Bears won’t see a familiar opponent, but rather 11-0 Hillsboro, at 7 p.m. Friday in Nashville.
“They’re very athletic,” Mt. Juliet coach Roger Perry said of the Burros. “Just an outstanding group of talent. A lot of experience returning.”
Hillsboro lost to Melrose in the state semifinals last year. Coach Ron Aydelott left and took the wing-T offense to Riverdale. New coach Scott Blade has brought in the one-back spread formation to the Music City from California.
Running back Jaques Seward rushed for nearly 1,300 yards during the regular season while quarterback Matt Arent passed for over 1,500.
“They got the big strong physical linemen,” Perry said of the Burros. “They got tremendous speed in the backfield at the skill positions.
“They’re very capable of throwing the ball. But their strong suit is the short passing game, the screen pass. They throw a lot of screen passes.”
The screen pass could be effective against an aggressive defense the Golden Bears have used to help build a 7-4 record to date.
“I’m sure after evaluating us on film, they’re excited about their offense against us,” Perry said. “We’ve gotten after folks the last few weeks.
“We’ll try to do something to offset that.”
Mt. Juliet quarterback Taylor Cisneros and a plethora of running backs led by Michael Nwokoji and Tyler Carr will face Hillsboro’s multiple defense, which shifts from an even- to an odd-man front.
“They will mix it up,” Perry said. “Their defense is very good. They run to the football well. They play good team defense. Our offense needs to have one of its best nights.
“The key’s going to be our offensive line coming off the ball and maintaining their blocks.”
While Hillsboro is a regular in the late rounds of the Class 4A playoffs, this is Mt. Juliet’s first trip past the first round since the 1997 Bears reached the 5A semifinals. That makes this a classic David vs. Goliath saga.
“We feel like that’s what we’ve been all year,” Perry said of the Bears’ underdog role. “That’s no big deal for us. We were a big-time underdog last week (in a 28-20 win over Tullahoma).
“If anything, it’s more motivation to our guys.”
Perry said the Bears’ first playoff berth since 2000 has energized the school and community.
“It is exciting,” said Perry, a veteran of many playoff runs at Westmoreland and Portland. “Got an outstanding group of seniors who’ve led us to ths position. They’ve done everything we’ve asked. There’s a lot of excitement in our school, our community and our football team.
“Our goals don’t change. We’re striving to get back to the practice field next Monday.”
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at [email protected].