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Faint playoff hopes relegate Eagles to spoiler role

By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
From a mathematical standpoint, the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles' playoff hopes are still alive despite Friday's heartbreaking 16-15 loss to Straughn on Bobo McVoy's 41-yard field goal on the last play of the game.
At the same time, those playoff aspirations are faint. The Blue Eagles (2-3 in Class 3A Region 1 and 2-5 overall) must beat T.R. Miller this Friday and Headland next week, while Slocomb must lose this week to Dale County and next week to Pike County.
Until further notice, that more or less drops the Blue Eagles into the spoiler role when they visit the undefeated and top-ranked T.R. Miller Tigers Friday at 7:30 p.m. W.S. Neal will try to spoil the Tigers undefeated season and delay their Region 1 championship party for another week.
"We're not out of the playoff picture, but right now there are too many things out of our control to worry about. Our number one focus is finding a way to beat T.R. Miller," W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers said.
The latter is something the Blue Eagles have been unable to solve for some time. W.S. Neal has lost nine straight and 20 of the last 21 encounters with T.R. Miller. That included two setbacks last season, 20-14 in the regular season and 31-14 in the state playoff quarterfinals.
"We've got two tough mental hurdles to overcome, the loss to Straughn and the past struggles against Miller. I think the Straughn loss may be tougher to overcome because it just happened. Our players hear about the Miller series everywhere they go, but most of them have never played in it. When you're talking about 20 of 21 losses to them, our players weren't even born yet when some of those games were played," Smothers said.
The W.S. Neal skipper said all the pressure is on his team's Murder Creek counterpart.
"If you look at it on paper, Miller should beat us. They're 7-0 and ranked number one in the state. We're 2-5. They're averaging more points than we're scoring and they're allowing fewer than us. We have four common opponents (Pike County, Straughn and Slocomb) if you include our exhibition game against Andalusia. They've beaten all four of those teams by a margin of 153-71 and we've lost to all of those teams 78-42. They have everything to
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lose…their undefeated season, their lead in the region, their number one ranking in the state," Smothers said.
Based on graduation losses, some may be surprised at T.R. Miller's success this season. Smothers is not one of those persons.
"I'm not surprised at all. When you look back to their 2002 state championship team, they had 22 sophomores. Those sophomores are now seniors. I figured it up and that 2002 sophomore class at Miller has now played 36 games. Our sophomore group has played 30. Those six extra games is better than half a regular season to get experience. Their starters are new, but they aren't rookies," Smothers said.
Smothers added the Tigers have a lot of weapons.
"Miller is just sound all across the board. (Jordan) Cauley is a tremendous passer who is coming off the huge game against Pike County. He has great receivers with (Jacob) Salter, (Mikel) Riggs and (Damien) Jackson. The running game led by (Tim) Atcher is sound. They've got good line play. (Baxley) Raines is a good kicker. It's going to be tough to beat them, especially at their house," Smothers said.
The Blue Eagles continue to add to their walking wounded. Quarterback/running back/linebacker/punter Justin Smith injured his ankle in Friday's game against Straughn and is doubtful for Friday. Also out are linebackers Cory Freeman and Justin Howard.
"That's our linebacker crew. Right now I don't look for Justin to dress Friday. It's the same ankle he broke two years ago," Smothers said.