Unbeaten away from home this season, Eagles need to do it again at Aliceville
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
Their nickname is Blue Eagles, but perhaps a more appropriate one for the W.S. Neal High School football team would be Road Warriors.
W.S. Neal was a perfect 6-0 away from home during the regular season. In order for the Blue Eagles to extend their season at least another week, they will have to prevail on the road again Friday when face the Aliceville Yellow Jackets in the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs. Game time is 7 p.m.
"Our players seem like they are comfortable playing on the road. Part of that may be is because we've played so many road games this season and we've gotten used to it," W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers said. "Aliceville is probably about a three-hour trip for us. We've already had some long trips this season like Hayneville and Geneva so we're used to having to sit on a bus for a long time although not quite to this extent."
While the Blue Eagles (5-2 in Region 1 and 8-2 overall) have been perfect on the road so far this season, Aliceville (6-1 in Region 4 and 8-2 overall) will be its toughest road test so far this season.
"Aliceville is a really tough team. They've got a lot of weapons on both offense and defense," Smothers said. "Another thing they have on their side is tradition. They won state titles in 1997 and 2000 so their players are used to being in this situation and they expect to win. Their seniors were freshmen on their 2000 state champs so they've been through this before and know what it takes."
The Yellow Jackets have won five straight games since back-to-back losses to Tarrant and Walter Wellborn. During that time Aliceville has outscored its opponents 167-26. The most recent outing in that list was Friday's 26-0 non-region win over Greene County.
That shutout was one of six recorded by the Yellow Jackets' defense this season. Aliceville has also blanked Livingston 26-0, Oak Grove 12-0, Sumter County 45-0 and Francis Marion 69-0.
"They've got an outstanding defense. They are big up front and they have a lot of speed," Smothers said.
Perhaps the key cog of that defense is its linebacker corps. Vonzell Jackson (6-1, 215 lb. sr.), who also serves as fullback, has attracted the attention of several Big 12 and Southeastern Conference schools. Ken Hood (5-10, 189 lb. sr.) and Jerami Woods (6-1, 195 lb. sr.) are returning starters.
"Jackson is the real deal. He doesn't take a play off whether it's offense or defense. We've got to be able to slow him down," Smothers said.
Aliceville also has plenty of size up front led by tackles Allen McKinstry (6-3, 290 lb. sr.) and Miguel Bishop (6-0, 307 lb. sr.). They are joined up front by Bobby Bishop (5-9, 307 lb. jr.) and Jasmine Crow (6-0, 265 lb. jr.). That size up front has made it tough for opposing teams to run against the Yellow Jackets.
"It has been tough for teams to get much of a push against them, but we're big up front too so that should be a great battle," Smothers said.
That other end of that confrontation is the Blue Eagles' running game. W.S. Neal racked up 415 yards rushing in its regular season finale at Geneva Friday. While Alphonso Gross accounted for 346 of those yards on 27 carries, the Blue Eagles also got 63 yards on seven carries by Jeremy Burch.
"We would have liked to have gotten our passing game going last week, but it's tough to get away from the run when you're having success with it," Smothers said.
The W.S. Neal defense will also face some difficult challenges. Several of those will center around stopping halfback Donte Colvin (5-9, 166 lb. sr.). Colvin had perhaps his best game against Oak Grove when he rushed for 158 yards and returned a kickoff back 78 yards for another score.
"Colvin is their version of Alphonso. He has 4.5 speed in the 40 so if he gets in the open, you're not going to catch him. He probably doesn't have a lot of strength so you have to stop him early in the play," Smothers said.
Like W.S. Neal, Aliceville starts a freshman, Brandon Manning, at quarterback. One of Manning's best games came against West Blocton when he threw for 114 yards with two touchdown and ran for another score. "He can throw the deep ball and his receivers have the speed to get the ball," Smothers said.
While W.S. Neal showed plenty of character Friday when it rallied from a 23-7 fourth quarter deficit with 25 unanswered points at Geneva, Smothers said his team can ill afford to dig that kind of hole at Aliceville.
"We can't do that this week. Aliceville has a running game that will eat up the clock, while Geneva had to rely on the pass," Smothers said.
There are two key areas where Smothers said his team needs to be better. One of those is its offensive third down conversion rate. Before W.S. Neal converted its final two third down attempts in the fourth quarter at Geneva, it went through a two-for-18 stretch dating back to its game at Straughn.
"Let's face it. That's terrible,"
Penalties have also hurt W.S. Neal most of the season. The Blue Eagles have been flagged 62 times in their last seven games, but only two of those came in a 63-6 win over Calhoun.
"We've been able to overcome some mistakes, but you can't expect to keep getting away with it once you get into the playoffs," Smothers said.
Friday's game will face the winner of the Montgomery Academy-Holtville game next week.