Eagles welcome another big challenge
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
There have been times this season where the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles have won with offense. On other occasions it has been their defense. Special teams have contributed as well.
All three parts are why the Blue Eagles are in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs. The Blue Eagles will get the chance to take the next step Friday when they host the Montgomery Academy Eagles at 7 p.m.
Defense helped carry W.S. Neal (9-2) to a 10-6 win at Aliceville in its playoff opener last Friday. The Blue Eagles' defense allowed just 113 yards and came up with two key interceptions.
"Our defense has done a great job all season. Our defense is the kind that bends, but doesn't break. We may give up some yards, but we haven't given up many big plays," said W.S. Neal defensive coordinator Buck Quarles. "We've forced a lot of turnovers and converted several of those turnovers into points. Roc Herbert has returned four turnovers for touchdowns this season. It also helped our defense when we inserted Justin Smith into our secondary a couple of weeks ago. He had an interception return for a touchdown against Geneva and another interception last week."
Meanwhile special teams also played a key win in the at Aliceville. A key play was a 45-yard punt return by Alphonso Gross to set up W.S. Neal's lone touchdown. Spencer Williamson booted a 32-yard field goal for the other score.
"Special teams is a key reason why we beat Aliceville. We hadn't been able to get much going on the offensive side until Alphonso's return gave us pretty good field position. Meanwhile Spencer split the uprights on his kick. That was his first field goal attempt this season," W.S. Neal head coach Shane Smothers said.
Montgomery Academy (8-3) advanced Friday with a 22-13 win over Holtville. The Eagles captured the Region 2 championship with a perfect 7-0 record although they lost all three of their non-region games to Trinity Presbyterian, Pike County and Saint James.
"Their non-region record is very deceiving. Trinity, Pike County and Saint James have a combined record of 31-2 and all three are still alive in the playoffs," Smothers said.
Like W.S. Neal, Montgomery Academy has been productive on offense, defense and special teams. The Eagles have averaged 27 points a game on offense and their defense has limited five opponents to a touchdown or less.
"They're very sound in every phase. They don't beat themselves with mistakes," Smothers said.
Montgomery Academy, which reached the Class 3A state semifinals last season, is small by today's football standards. The Eagles have just six players over 200 pounds and only two over 225 pounds.
"We're going to try to exploit their size, but Montgomery Academy has been in this situation all season. Their players know each week they are going to be at a size disadvantage. They know they have to work extra hard to make up for it," Smothers said.
On the ground, Montgomery Academy will turn to the comination of fullback Bennett Maddox (6-0, 195 lb. sr.) and tailbacks Michael McNail (5-10, 165 lb. sr.) and Walter Parker (5-11, 170 lb. jr.).
Quarterback Greg Crews (6-1, 180 lb. sr.) has been effective through the air. His favorite receiver has been Clay Steineker (5-9, 155 lb. sr.).
"They've got pretty good speed at all their skill positions. Their offensive line does a good job of getting off the ball and opening up holes for their backs. Crews is a good play action passer," Smothers said.
Field goals are usually not a big part of football at the high school level, but that is not the case with Montgomery Academy. Maddox booted three field goals in last week's win over Holtville, one of which was a 46-yarder.
"Maddox is a tremendous kicker. If they can get down towards the 30-yard line, he is a legitimate threat to get them three points," Smothers said.
The Blue Eagles are not used to being at home. Friday's game is just their fifth home game in 12 contests. W.S. Neal is 7-0 on the road and 2-2 at home.
"We've played well on the road, but we're glad to be at home. Our student body and our community are getting excited about this team and we're happy to have the opportunity to play in front of them. Last week was the program's first playoff win since 1996. It's a good stepping stone for the present, but it's also a good stepping stone for our future," Smothers said.
The W.S. Neal-Montgomery Academy winner will play the T.R. Miller-Springville survivor next week in the quarterfinals.