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Eagles playoff hopes face big test against Straughn

By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
He would not go so far as to call it a must-win situation.
However, W.S. Neal Blue Eagles coach Shane Smothers does call Friday's key Class 3A Region 1 clash at home against the Straughn Tigers a big piece of his team's playoff puzzle.
"We're up to a tie for fourth place in the region now, but we're on the short end of the tiebreaker with Slocomb. We may wind up having to beat both Straughn and T.R. Miller along with (winless) Headland in order to qualify. At the very least, we will have to beat either Straughn or Miller," Smothers said.
First up is a Straughn team that still has hopes to claim the Region 1 championship with some help. The Tigers (3-1 in Region 1 and 5-1 overall) lost to T.R. Miller 10-3 in the opening week of region play, but have since beaten Abbeville, Headland and most recently Slocomb 39-21 last Friday.
Defense has been a big part of Straughn's success. The Tigers have given up 67 points, just over 11 per game. Forty-four of those points came in games against Slocomb and Opp.
"Straughn is very sound across the board. If we are to win, we must keep it a low-scoring game. They don't make many mistakes, which means we can't make many mistakes. We'll have to play our 'A' game not only to be able to win, but just to have a chance to win," Smothers said.
Tigers quarterback Alphonso Freeney is coming off perhaps his best game of the season against Slocomb. Freeney beat the Red Tops not with his passing arm, but his legs and 174 yards rushing.
"Freeney is a capable thrower and he has about four guys he can go to, but he is a big threat as a runner," Smothers said.
Running back Justin Freeney is normally Straughn's top running back, but he was sidelined in the Slocomb game. Josh Cottle stepped in last week and produced a 35-yard touchdown run.
"The other Freeney is a lot like most of the backs we've faced this season, small and extremey fast. If he is back this week, he is a big-play runner as well as a huge threat on special teams," Smothers said.
Speaking of special teams, that could be a big key in Friday's game. Straughn's BoBo McVay is an effective weapon as both a punter and kicker.
"McVay does a great job of pinning the other team deep with his kicks. He can also hit field goals from about 40 yards in. He shortens the field for their offense. If Straughn can get to about the 20, McVay can hit the field goal," Smothers said.
Meanwhile special teams had its share of breakdowns for W.S. Neal (2-2 in region, 2-4 overall) last week despite its 34-20 win at Abbeville. The Blue Eagles gave up a 95-yard kickoff return, surrendered an onsides kick by Abbeville and lost the ball on a punt return when it bounced off a Blue Eagle.
"Our special teams play was really bad in that game. It reminded me a lot of our Eufaula game. We eventually went to a squib kick to help avoid the long return. This week we'll probably kick deep again and take our chances. I don't think you can afford to give a good team like Straughn reasonably good field position with a squib kick. We just have to be careful where we kick it," Smothers said.
Junior running back Mario Daniel has stepped up for the
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Blue Eagles the last three weeks with 261 yards rushing. It is no coincidence those yards came after fullback Jake Bailey returned to the W.S. Neal offense after some early season injuries.
"I think Mario's performance is about 50/50 between himself and Jake. It took some time for Mario to adapt to the move from wide receiver to running back and each week he gets more comfortable. Jake is a tremendous blocker and Mario has run well behind him," Smothers said.
Justin Smith and Marquis Barksdale shared the quarterback duties last week in place of an injured Daniel Hodge. It may be a similar situation this week.
"Daniel is still having arm problems and did not practice Monday. Justin actually hurt his arm in practice Monday, but I think he should be able to go by Friday. Right now Marquis is getting all the reps in practice," Smothers said.