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Eagles, Pike County both look for first win in region opener

By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
When the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles lost their preseason game at Andalusia, they had a chance to redeem themselves in their regular seeason opener against Eufaula.
After the Blue Eagles lost that game last week to Eufaula 43-13, W.S. Neal gets another chance to redeem itself Friday when it opens the Class 3A Region 1 season with a trip to Pike County. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
"We wanted to win last week like we want to win every game. However, now we start the most important part of the season, the region season. This is what gets you into the playoffs," W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers said.
The schedule once again does the Blue Eages no favors. After drawing Class 5A power Eufaula in week one, the Blue Eagles face the defending Class 3A Region 1 and state champ, Pike County, in week two.
"It's another huge test for us and Pike County is a very tough place to play. Their band is loud and plays throughout the game. They'll have their side of the field filled. It's a great environment, but it's also easy to get rattled if you're the visiting team," Smothers said.
While the Bulldogs are the defending state champs, this Pike County team bares little resemblance to the one that went 14-1 a year ago. Gone is Alabama Mr. Football, quarterback Chris Nickson (Vanderbilt). Gone is All-State tight end Nick Walker (Alabama). Gone is most of the supporting cast.
"Players like Nickson and Walker were not only great players, but great leaders. This Pike County team is really young. They only have one senior on their entire team. They're searching for leaders right now," Smothers said.
The Bulldogs are also searching for a victory after they opened their season with an 18-0 loss to Class 5A member Booker T. Washington.
One of the few key players Pike County has back from its state championship team is running back James Jackson (5-6, 158 lb. soph.). Jackson ran for 158 yards on 24 carries last week. The Bulldogs also got 32 yards rushing from fullback Jarmon Barrow (5-8, 175 lb. jr.).
"Jackson is extremely quick. In a way, he is a lot like Alphonso Gross. If you don't get him at the line at the start of the play, you're in trouble. If he gets to the oustide, he is probably gone because we don't have anybody who can win a foot race with him," Smothers said. "Barrow is also an effective runner. He is strong down low in his legs."
While Jackson and Barrow accounted for 190 yards of offense against Booker T. Washington, Pike County had just three other yards of total offense.
A strength a year ago, Pike County struggled with its passing game last week with Alonzo Foster (5-8, 173 lb. jr.) as the signal caller. While Foster may get the call again this week, Pike County may also give significant time to Tobia Lee (6-2, 200 lb. soph.).
"Pike County's quarterback situation reminds a lot of Escambia County last year. Foster is more of a running quarterback, while Lee is a throwing quarterback. Lee is also lefthanded so that gives you a little different look. We're preparing for both," Smothers said.
A big area on the docket at W.S. Neal camp this week is special teams work. The Blue Eagles allowed a kickoff for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, a botched punt attempt for a safety, another botched punt attempt that led to another touchdown and a missed extra point.
"That area killed us. We're looking at using some different people in our kick coverage this week. Our punting game for the most part has been pretty good so far. We've had pretty good distance with those kicks. A lot of the one that led to the safety was simply due to the fact Daniel Hodge was at the back of the endzone and didn't have his normal distance," Smothers said.
Turnovers bit both Pike County and W.S. Neal last week, as each had five turnovers.
"The biggest difference in our game with Eufaula is they took advantage of our mistakes and we didn't. We created a lot of opportunities. Eufaula had six turnovers and 12 penalties, but other than Ben Crane's fumble return for a touchdown, we didn't take advantage," Smothers said.