Some prep games carry more weight for fans
Sun. July 01, 2012 at 1:00 a.m. | By Andrew Carroll
Tuscaloosa County’s Tyler Gates (3) looks downfield for receiver Rasheed Artis (11) as he gets pressure from the Northridge defense during last season’s game at Northridge High School. (Photo by File photo | Jason Harless)
Every football coach believes every game is important, and rightly so. No matter the score, it counts as one win or one loss, and the common-sense approach is to take one at a time.
High school fans, students, parents and to a certain extent players don’t have to think like coaches. Some games just carry more weight. They’re known as circle games because fans circle the date on the calendar. Circle games develop for a variety of reasons, including location, tradition, playoff implications, bragging rights and, perhaps, revenge.
A year ago, Marion County won the AHSAA Class 1A championship, finishing with one loss. Berry beat the Red Raiders 68-50. The two teams square off Sept. 7.
Tuscaloosa Academy was unranked when it pulled off a 16-12 victory over Bessemer Academy, the No. 1 team in the AISA poll. The following week, Tuscaloosa Academy had a No. 6 ranking. The Knights will play Bessemer Academy on Oct. 4.
Teams in the Christian Football Association, which features eight-man competition, get an early start on the season. Tuscaloosa Christian will play its second game against local rival North River Christian Academy.
The night of Oct. 5 features six contests that could be considered circle games — Northridge at Tuscaloosa County; Gordo at American Christian Academy; Demopolis at Greenville; Northside at Sipsey Valley; Sunshine at Akron; and Marengo Academy at Pickens Academy.
Northridge plays TCHS in a Class 6A, Region 5 game. Northridge beat the Wildcats 35-21 last season. Both teams went to the playoffs, but TCHS lost in the first round and finished 5-6.
"It’s just another game, just a region ballgame," TCHS coach Lee Gibson said. "We don’t place any special emphasis on any game. The only thing that matters to us is that we are Tuscaloosa County High School. That’s the only thing we can control. We don’t mention that we’ve got to do this extra or do that extra. Last year was not up to what was expected of us, so we’re working on us. We’re trying to get the swagger back that we lost last year. Our biggest focus is to get back to the way we were playing football in the past and getting over one bad year. Up until last year we had been on track to be a dominating football team. I want people to circle us on the calendar."
Gibson admitted that to a 16-year-old, "shoot yeah, it’s big."
"I’d say it’s bigger for the kids and the fans," he said. "It’s big because it’s an in-town rival, and you never want to lose to an in-town rival. Both teams are well-coached, and the kids know each other as friends. Maybe they went to elementary school together. They go to church, camps, mission trips, you name it. As far as the kids go, it puts an interesting twist on it. Whichever teams wins has bragging rights when they meet outside of football."
Circle games usually result in more ticket sales. The stands should be packed when Hillcrest visits TCHS on Oct. 19. Hillcrest won the region title last year and went 10-0 in the regular season.
"We don’t get any outside money to support our program, so it’s huge to have games like that," Gibson said.
Other Region 5 teams are Jackson-Olin, Minor and Bessemer City, along with Hueytown and perennial powerhouse Hoover.
"I think by far we have the toughest region in the state," Gibson said.
Hillcrest plays at Northridge in a region game Sept. 7. Hillcrest beat the Jaguars 34-14 last year.
Gordo and ACA have had successful programs over the years, but this is the first season they’ll face off as Class 3A, Region 3 opponents. Demopolis was the runner-up to Greenville in Class 5A, Region 3 last season. Sipsey Valley, a second-year program in 2011, secured its first victory when it defeated Northside 30-18. Sunshine and Akron are both in Hale County and in Class 1A, Region 3. Marengo Academy and Pickens Academy, Class A teams this season, have a long history of AISA competition.
Patrick Plott, head coach of the Pickens County Tornadoes, said some people might not show up all season to watch his team, but they’ll turn out in force for the Gordo game, which is scheduled this year for Nov. 1 in Reform.
The game won’t affect either team’s playoff chances because Gordo is in Class 3A and Pickens County is in Class 1A. But the rivalry is a natural because Gordo and Reform are only 8 miles apart.
"It’s one of those games that will be played every year because it’s such a big rivalry," said Plott, whose team beat Gordo 27-21 in 2011. "You can throw the records out. Either team could be 9-0 or 0-9, and it doesn’t matter. It’s one of those games everybody in Reform and everybody in Gordo looks forward to. Whoever wins it gets to talk about it until we play again."
Plott said he’d like to see his team win a state championship and Gordo win one as well.
"We think it’s a big test for us going into the playoffs," Plott said. "We treat it like the first round of the playoffs. If we lose, it’s like getting a second chance. If we play well, we want to keep our momentum going from that point on. Gordo is a well-coached team. Coach (David) McKinney is doing a good job over there."
McKinney said he and Plott have a "great relationship," but he also described the rivalry as "intense."
"That’s the game you don’t want to lose," McKinney said. "If you win that one, sometimes it saves you for another year. If you lose it, sometimes you’ve got to move on. They beat us last year at the end of the season. That’s something as a senior you don’t want to have to live with, but that’s part of it.
"Coach Plott does a great job, and they should have a fine football team against this year. We check their scores to see if they’ve won. It’s a money-maker for both of our schools, especially if both teams are successful."
Gordo opens the season with another county rival, hosting Aliceville on Aug. 30.
Dennis Conner, a Central High School graduate, is trying to revive the football fortunes at his alma mater. Central, formerly a Class 6A school, lost students when Paul W. Bryant and Northridge opened in 2003.
Conner said the big game for his players is Paul W. Bryant. Central and the Stampede play Oct. 12 in a Class 5A, Region 5. Brookwood is another region opponent for Central. The Falcons, who won 18-13 last season, host Brookwood on Sept. 21.
"Bryant is one of those games that definitely qualifies," Conner said. "That is the real, real big game for us. The kids know each other. They all live in the city together.
"It’s our sixth game of the season. That game will kind of put a stamp on which way our season will continue after that. It’s a region game, a city game. It’s always a big game."
Central will play at Tuscaloosa County in a nonregion game Sept. 28. The teams didn’t play for a few years after Central changed classifications, but Conner said it’s still a meaningful game for him and for Dre’Mail King, a Central graduate and assistant coach on Conner’s staff.
Central won the Class 6A championship in 1995. TCHS took the title in 1997.
Linden, the Class 1A runner-up last season, opens Aug. 31 against Leroy, which is led by former Hillcrest coach Johnny Wright. Leroy won the Class 2A championship in 2008, when Danny Powell was the head coach. Leroy won at least 10 games in seven straight seasons (2004-2010). Linden has won at least 10 games in five straight seasons.
The Berry Wildcats will open at Northside, a traditional rival. Northside players used to be treated to a supper of fried rattlesnake before facing Berry.
Brookwood and Holt will finish up the regular season with their traditional rivalry game Nov. 2. Brookwood beat the Ironmen 14-3 last season.
A look at the top high school football games involving West Alabama teams this fall:
24 — Tuscaloosa Christian at North River Christian Academy
Aug. 30 — Aliceville at Gordo
31 — Berry at Northside; Linden at Leroy; Lamar County at South Lamar
7 — Hillcrest at Northridge; Pickens Academy at Southern Academy; Berry at Marion County
14 — Paul W. Bryant at Brookwood; Gordo at Fayette County
21 — Brookwood at Central; Sulligent at Lamar County
28 — Central at Tuscaloosa County; Pickens County at Aliceville; Demopolis at Thomasville; Greensboro at Hale County
4 — Bessemer Academy at Tuscaloosa Academy
5 — Northridge at Tuscaloosa County; Marengo Academy at Pickens Academy; Gordo at American Christian Academy; Demopolis at Greenville; Northside at Sipsey Valley; Sunshine at Akron
12 — Paul W. Bryant at Central; Sumter Central at Demopolis
19 — Hillcrest at Tuscaloosa County; West Blocton at Bibb County
26 — Greensboro at Greene County
1 — Northridge at Paul W. Bryant; Gordo at Pickens County
2 — Brookwood at Holt; South Lamar at Sulligent
Reach Andrew Carroll at email@example.com or at 205-722-0223.