They’ve endured 10 games, winning enough of them to buy themselves at least one more.
Some have won just enough to make the playoffs, others enough to play at home and still others have run the table and are expected to keep doing so for the next four weeks until the BlueCross Bowl the first weekend of December.
Friendship Christian falls into the last category. The 10-0 Commanders have earned homefield advantage for the next four weeks – if they keep winning.
“What happened was great with the regular-season run,” said Friendship coach John McNeal, whose Commanders host Grace Baptist at Pirtle Field at 7 p.m. Friday. “It’s gotten us to where we wanted to be in the playoffs.
“But that means nothing now. We’ll have to save it for a later date and remeber it. It doesn’t mean anything now. We have to win now or it’s all over.”
In his first year at Mt. Juliet, veteran coach Roger Perry has found the formula to spark the Golden Bears to a four-game winning streak which netted them not only their first playoff berth since 2000, but also their first home game since then.
“It’s a new season,” said Perry, whose 6-4 Bears host Tullahoma at Elzie Patton Stadium. “We’ve got to win each week if we want to just get back to the practice field on Monday.”
A Week 10 loss at Smyrna cost Lebanon a home game this week. But the Blue Devils had already clinched a playoff spot and will bring a 6-4 record to Fayetteville to face Lebanon-native Louis Thompson’s Lincoln County Falcons. Both teams like to run the ball, but with the desperation the playoffs bring, both coaches are likely to pull off some tricks in an attempt to treat their teams to victory three nights after Halloween.
“No use in saving any plays,” Lebanon coach Bobby Brown said. “Saving it for the offseason doesn’t do you any good.”
There also aren’t any games for a slightly ailing player to save himself for. If someone can go at all, he’ll be out there.
“You strap it as tight as you can do it and go,” Brown said.
Lebanon at Lincoln County
The Blue Devils’ postseason history with the Falcons goes back to the beginning of Lebanon’s playoff run – in 1982. Lincoln County won that year on the way to its first state championship and beat the Devils again in 1988. Their last postseason meeting was an overtime Lebanon win in 1992 at Falcon Stadium, better known as The Pit.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere to go down there and play at their place,” Brown said. “We’re looking forward to it. We’re glad to be in the playoffs. We’re excited.”
As for the here and now, Lincoln County’s mascot may be a bird, but the Falcons’ preferred mode of ball transportation is the ground as Jeremy Ramsey has rushed for 1,486 yards and 14 touchdowns in a 7-3 season.
“They’re a lot like us in the offense they run, the defense they play,” Brown said. “They’re comparable to us. They’re comparable to (Wilson) Central and Oakland. Very good defensive team. They don’t score a lot of points. They try to win on defense so it’s going to be a defensive battle.”
Lebanon’s offense is led by senior tailback Carlos Gaines, who has 904 yards on 209 carries. Junior quarterback Daley Sallis keeps the defense honest with 47-of-123 passing for 753 yards and seven touchdowns. They’ll face an aggressive defense this week.
“They do a really good job defensively running to the football,” Brown said.
Helping Lincoln County’s defense is punter R.J. Sandmeyer, who is averaging 35.3 yards on 37 kicks.
Lebanon, banged and bruised down the stretch, should have everyone available except punter Daniel Ramsey.
Grace Baptist at Friendship Christian
In their seventh straight postseason and coming off back-to-back state quarterfinal appearances, the Commanders are playoff battle tested. By comparison, the Golden Eagles (6-4) are making their playoff debut in only their third season of football. The Chattanooga-based school has been successful in other sports, including basketball, winning a couple of state boys championships earlier in the decade while the girls reached the 2001 state finals after ousting Friendship in the sectional.
“They run what most people are running, they’re running a lot of shotgun,” Commander coach John McNeal said of the Eagles. “Got a good quarterback, probably their best athlete.
“He is by far their big play maker.”
But that quarterback, Josh Blake, may not play this week. McNeal said Grace coach Mark Mowery told him Blake may have broken his left thumb in last Friday’s game. McNeal saw the backup on film of last week’s game, which was played in bad weather. If Blake can’t go, it may change what Grace runs offensively, which is what Friendship’s defense is preparing for.
“(But) if they have to make a change, it hurts them too,” McNeal said.
Grace’s defense depends on what the opposing offense runs.
“They look to be a 50 team, but teams that spread them, they seem to go to a 40,” McNeal said.
Junior tailback Jeremy Rickaway leads Friendship’s offense with 1,007 yards and 13 touchdowns on 135 carries. One of his backups, senior Bryant Alsup, won’t play after injuring his leg in a four-wheeler accident last weekend, McNeal said.
Friendship’s defense, perhaps the not-so-unsung hero of the Commanders’ perfect season, is led by senior middle linebacker Wade Mitchell, who has 111 tackles and averages 38.7 yards on 15 punts. Senior cornerback John Doak leads the Midstate with nine interceptions.
Tullahoma at Mt. Juliet
Footballs figure to fill the Elzie Patton Stadium air – at least when Tullahoma is on offense.
Wildcat quarterback Cass Barnes is the Midstate’s top passer with 2,043 yards and 17 touchdowns on 130-of-215.
“He’s the real deal,” Perry said of Barnes. “He can run, he can throw, he can do it all… He can make things happen.
“Watching him on film, I can see why he’s the No. 1-rated quarterback in the Midstate. Very quick, real smart, has a quick release on the ball.”
Tullahoma (7-3) runs a one-back, spread offense. Bobby Dowdell leads the Wildcats on the ground with 957 yards and nine touchdowns on 120 carries.
Barnes has four wideouts to throw to – Chad Fuhrman (35 catches, 563 yards and five touchdowns), Dylan Cross (40-553-4), Cameron Greenway (29-442-4) and Chanse Askins (24-408-5).
“They have strong running backs when they decide to do that,” Perry said. “They run great routes, the receivers do. They’ll make diving catches.
“This, by far, will be the best offense we’ve faced.”
Dakota Dodson leads Tullahoma’s defense with 128 tackles while Fuhrman has 90.
“Defensively, we’ve seen them in an odd and even front,” Perry said. “Some games we’ve seen them in a 50 defense and some games we’ve seen them in a 4-3, so we’ve been preparing for both.”
Perry has had opponents having to prepare for multiple offenses since fall break, when he added the I-formation to his trademark wing-T. The Bears, who were 2-4 at the time, have reeled off four straight wins since then for a 6-4 finish.
“The last four games we’ve made a lot of progress,” Perry said. “During the fall break, we were able to concentrate on ofootball. We made a lot of changes.
“Adding the I to the wing-T offense has been very good to us.”
Regardless of the offense, senior quarterback Taylor Cisneros has completed 47 of 102 passes for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns. Tyler Carr leads a plethora of Mt. Juliet running backs with 836 yards and five touchdowns on 141 carries.
When the offense stalls, Cisneros is second in the Midstate with a 42-yard average on 28 punts.
Defensively, junior linebacker Matt Jones leads the Bears with 105 tackles while senior ‘backer Daryl Johnson has 90 stops. Antwuan Majors has four interceptions in the secondary while Robert Hill has three.
Perry said all the Bears who have been playing should be ready to go Friday.
“It might be the healthiest we’ve been all year,” he said.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at [email protected].