It all starts tonight
3 rivalry games over next 2 days signal start of a new football season
Justin Schuver, Hartselle Enquirer
All those weeks of practice in the hot sun; all those early mornings lifting weights while the rest of the town is still asleep; all those hours sitting in meetings going over plays and schemes – it's all built up to this weekend as the high school football season gets kicked off across the state of Alabama.
Tonight, Hartselle faces Austin at J.P. Cain Stadium and Falkville travels to face county rival Danville at Smith-Owens Stadium. Friday, Priceville and Brewer renew a young rivalry as the Bulldogs take their first trip to Brewer's James R. Tucker Stadium.
It's a great way to start off the season, with three games that might not mean much in terms of region standings and playoff possibilities, but do mean a lot when it comes to rivalries between the schools.
Hartselle vs. Austin – Streaking Tigers
This rivalry is a series of streaks. Hartselle has won the last three games between the two teams, while Austin won five straight from 1999-2003. The Tigers' three wins have come by a total of 14 points, including a 37-34 triple-overtime thriller last season at Decatur's Ogle Stadium. Hartselle trailed late in regulation of that game after giving up a blocked punt, but the Tigers responded with a game-tying drive that made the score 17-17 after regulation.
The teams traded touchdowns in the first two overtimes and Austin kicker Morgan Hull made a field goal to put the home team up 34-31. With the game on the line, Hartselle quarterback Wes Chenault found Tyler Young open for a 10-yard touchdown on the first play of the Tigers' next overtime possession.
The win gave Hartselle a strong start to a season that would eventually be one of the Tigers' best in school history, as Hartselle finished 11-2 and advanced to the state quarterfinals before losing to eventual state champion Athens.
"If nothing else I think those first two games (against Austin and Decatur) gave us a lot of confidence," Hartselle coach Bob Godsey said. "Obviously we had to come from behind and win overtime against Austin and it was also big for us to beat Decatur and get rid of that stigma. Both those wins were huge for giving us confidence."
Austin has high hopes for this season after winning four of its last five games in 2006 and returning a core group of 21 starters. The Black Bears return their leading passer in junior quarterback Justin Jones, leading rusher in junior running back D'Nico Best and leading receiver in junior Riley Howard.
"We're going to have to tackle well to win," Godsey said. "They have a lot of players who are explosive on offense and they do a lot of misdirection and movement to try and confuse the defense, so we need to be fundamentally sound in our tackling."
Adding further intrigue to the rivalry, Black Bears coach David "Stump" Norwood is a Hartselle graduate who is 0-3 against his alma mater.
Danville vs. Falkville – Keeping it close
Historically, this is a game that has always been close. Last season, Falkville took a 13-12 victory and that has been par for the course in the recent series. In 2005, Danville won 6-0; in 2003, the Hawks took it 12-6; in 2002, Falkville won an 18-16 game and in 2001, Danville squeaked by with a 15-13 victory. The lone exception to the rule was in 2004, when Danville won a 40-12 contest (that season the Hawks finished 9-2 and the Blue Devils were winless).
"Both schools have the same type of kids from the same type of area; we're really similar talent wise," Danville coach Joey Burch said when asked why the series has always been so close.
"This is one of those games where you better not leave in the fourth quarter or you might miss the winning score."
The Blue Devils have made the playoffs each of the past two seasons, while the Hawks have failed to make it to the postseason in that same time span. Last year, Danville opened its season with three straight one-point losses on the way to an 0-8 start. But the Hawks rebounded with a strong finish at the end of the year, defeating Hanceville and Speake in their final two games.
Estes said that it is always difficult to get a good read on the opening night opponent, because since it is the first game there is no real film study that can be done.
"You can look back at the prior year's film a little, but that doesn't help you too much since teams change a lot from season to season," he said. "We were lucky to see Danville at a 7-on-7 camp this summer, so we know a little bit about what they look like and what kind of personnel they have.
"But there are still a lot of secrets that teams can keep up until that first game."
Estes said his team's biggest key to winning the game will be to establish the run and stop Danville's own ground game, led by returning starter and sophomore running back Levi George.
"If we can slow down their running game, we should be in it for the long haul," he said. "But if we let them run over, around, and through us, it's probably going to be a long night for us."
Burch believes the biggest key to victory is for his young team to eliminate mistakes.
"We're just really trying to hammer into these guys that we've got to limit the mental errors that young teams usually make," he said. "We feel like we're going to be pretty well prepared for this game and we know Falkville will be, too."
Brewer vs. Priceville – Sibling rivalry
On paper, neither team looks like they should be all that excited about this game. It's a Class 4A school facing a Class 5A school in an opener that has no bearings on either team's chances to make the playoffs.
But what that paper doesn't tell you is that these teams have a history dating back to 2001, when Priceville reopened as a high school and no longer served as a feeder school for Brewer. The younger school got a chance to fire the first salvo in this fledgling rivalry last season as Priceville defeated Brewer 27-20.
"The term I keep hearing around here is that (Brewer) is the big brother and Priceville's kind of like the little brother," Priceville coach Donald Weeks said. "There's no question it's a big rivalry."
Priceville features a group of veteran linebackers led by senior Will Halbrooks, while Brewer is high on the potential of its defensive line led by senior Zack Graham and junior Dominique Burton.
Each team also graduated key members of the offense from last year's squads, including Priceville quarterback Will Stevens and Brewer's leading receivers, Chris Humphries and Rodney Childs.
"I always think that early in the season the defense is ahead of the offense," Weeks said. "On offense, I think it's usually a lot more important that all 11 guys are doing their job; if you have one guy miss a block, it can ruin the entire play. Defensively, you have a little more wiggle room when it comes to mistakes."
Like most rivalries with closely-matched opponents, Brewer coach Billy Coleman believes it will ultimately come down to the team who plays the most sound game fundamentally.
"Turnovers are always really big in any game," he said. "Plus it will also come down to whichever team gives up the fewest big plays. Priceville has a lot of speed on defense and they're good at not giving up a lot of big plays, and we've got to match that with our defense."