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Eagles get tough test against Eufaula

By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
When Hillcrest ended its week one series against the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles after last season, it started what appeared to be a futile search for a replacement.
In fact, for most of the summer W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers had pretty much resigned to the fact his team would be idle this week.
Late in the summer, Smothers found two final possible opponents for that opener. Based on the fact both schools, Stanhope Elmore and Eufaula, were Class 5A powers, it was like picking your poison. Smothers chose Eufaula.
As a result, the Blue Eagles will kick off both their home and regular season Friday when they entertain the Eufaula Tigers at 7:30 p.m.
"I felt we needed to play this first week. The one advantage we could have had if we had been idle is it would have given us a chance to watch Pike County (next week's opponent), but we got a chance to watch them last Friday in a preseason game," Smothers said. "The players are at the point where they want to play and it's a good opportunity for us to play a great program like Eufaula."
The Tigers, who are ranked sixth in the Class 5A preseason poll, went 11-1 last season and won Region 2 in that class with a perfect 7-0 record. Eufaula's lone loss last season was against Briarwood in the second round of the playoffs. One of Eufaula's wins was over Class 3A Area 1 and state champ Pike County.
While the Tigers have lost most of last year's lineup, (they return just two offensive and four defensive starters), Smothers said that is misleading.
"One of the biggest differences when you play schools up in classification is numbers. They have enough depth so they don't have to play many two-way players. Eufaula has 35 juniors and seniors and 59 sophomores through seniors. We've got about 60 kids in our entire program counting the freshmen," Smothers said. "They start nine seniors on defense and quite a few more on offense so even though they may not have a lot of experience in terms of games, they have it in terms of age."
While W.S. Neal lost a preseason game last week at Andalusia 26-6, Eufaula was blanked in an exhibition contest 16-0 by Class 6A member Phenix City.
The Tigers struggled on the offensive side the entire night, especially when their starting unit was in the game. Eufaula had just 20 yards total offense
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through three quarters.
"Eufaula's defense played well in that game. It was just 2-0 at halftime. Phenix City got a couple of big runs in the second half to break the game open," Smothers said.
The Tigers have some beef up front, but their backfield is small led by quarterback Maurice Jackson (5-10, 156 lb. sr.), tailback Keone Curry (5-7, 163 lb. sr.) and fullback Deon Still (5-8, 160 lb. sr.).
"They like to run a lot behind their big tackle, Ben Wilson (6-4, 284 lb. jr.). They also have another pretty good tackle in Daniel Orr (6-3, 220 lb. jr.), who plays more on the defensive side than on offense," Smothers said.
One of the down sides to playing an exhibition game, the injury bug, bit the Blue Eagles a lot worse than Smothers originally feared.
"(Running back) Jake Bailey suffered a real bad ankle sprain and he will be a game-time decision. We may be down to our number three center. Our returning center, Brandon Gantt, has been released from the doctor, but he isn't in game shape yet. Our number two center, Deric Smith, is under the weather with strep throat. That takes us to our number three center, Greg Minchew. (Running back) Justin Smith suffered a real bad leg cramp. He is still sore, but he should be able to go Friday. Matt Madden, one of our freshmen linemen, suffered a knee injury and may be out for the year," Smothers said.
A lingering hip pointer injury will also keep quarterback Marquis Barksdale on the sidelines for another week.
"We were pretty pleased with the way Daniel Hodge played last week, but we've been giving Justin Smith (last year's starter) some reps at quarterback in case something would happen to Daniel or we don't like the way he is playing," Smothers said.
Smothers said his team must play a ball control offense Friday.
"Eufaula is a big play team. They run the option and spread option. We must do a good job of containment and perimeter tackling. That is something we struggled with some against Andalusia," Smothers said.