Eagles now turn direction to next season
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
With the 2004 season now complete, there are two questions the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles are asking.
They would be "what went wrong?" and "what can be done to fix things for 2005?"
W.S. Neal capped off a 4-6 season Friday on a good note when it surprised a Southern Choctaw team that had an 8-1 record headed into that game. It was the Blue Eagles fourth win in six games after an 0-4 start.
"We went into this season with high hopes and nobody is more disappointed about not making the playoffs than we are. That (making the playoffs) is something this program expects to do," W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers said.
It would be easy to blame some of the Blue Eagles' problems on their schedule. W.S. Neal played seven teams that made the playoffs, which included two number one ranked teams in the state (Trinity Presbyterian in Class 4A and T.R. Miller in Class 3A). The Blue Eagles went 1-6 in those games (Southern Choctaw was the lone win). The six losses W.S. Neal had came against teams with a combined 46-13 record.
"We knew with the schedule we had that we could theoretically have a better team than last year but a worse record. We were right there in a lot of those games. We got stopped at the two-yard line at Slocomb (an 18-14 loss), Straughn beat us on a 41-yard field goal on the last play of the game (a 16-15 loss) and we had our chances to beat Pike County (an 18-7 loss). Even against T.R. Miller (a 38-7) loss, we played well for a half but not for four quarters," Smothers said. "The schedule is something we might as well get used to. It's going to be the same next year except the home and away dates will be flip-flopped."
Injuries took a big toll on W.S. Neal's season. Fullback Jake Bailey was injured in the preseason game at Andalusia and was not available on offense until week four. Quarterback Marquis Barksdale missed the first half of the season with a hip pointer. Tight end/linebacker Cory Freeman missed four games the second half of the season. Inside linebacker Justin Howard went down in week two. Running back/quarterback/linebacker/punter Justin Smith missed the last three games to mention some of the injuries W.S. Neal endured.
"It always seemed when we
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got somebody back somebody else went down. We just didn't have enough depth to replace all those players," Smothers said. "If there is a good thing about all that, it is a lot of our younger players got some valuable varsity experience. Bobby Freeman and James Freeman both got some time at linebacker. DeWayne Floyd and Ron Dexter spent some time at tight end. Rohin Travis filled in at fullback."
While the whole state had their season disrupted by Hurricane Ivan, Smothers said that was a tough situation to overcome.
"We felt we had started to turn the corner against Slocomb. Then the Hurricane hit and we were off for two weeks. Worse yet, a lot of our players went nearly two weeks without practice. We couldn't get in touch with a lot of our players after the storm. Our district is really big area wise. Some of our players live 20 to 25 miles away. Our first practice after the storm we only had 19 players. The most we had before the Trinity game was 32 and that came on our walk-through day," Smothers said.
The W.S. Neal coaching staff also had its share of adversity. Receivers/secondary coach Jake Bailey was not hired until just a few days before the season opener. Linebackers/tight ends coach Marvell Davis missed nearly a third of the season for training at a new job.
"We had to do some shuffling positions. I took over the linebackers and tight ends while Coach Davis was away, but that then took me away from other parts," Smothers said. "As a coaching staff, we have to do a better job next season. We're all responsible."
The Blue Eagles lose 14 seniors, but return 17 juniors.
"Our seniors had some good moments for us. They didn't give up when they could have. If they had, it would have made life for our coaching staff very tough. Our senior leadership wasn't as good as what we needed it to be on a consistent basis. At times our seniors were good leaders, but at times they weren't as good as they needed to be," Smothers said. "It's too early to tell what kind of leaders our juniors will be, but it should be one of the better classes to go through here in a while. That class made a lot of contributions for us, especially on the line and in our backfield."
After a season that saw virtually every mistake possible, special teams will be a big emphasis during the offseason.
"We did have some areas that got better. Josh Danley did a good job with the field goals and point after kicks. Spencer Williamson had a great game with kickoffs in the finale against Southern Choctaw. Justin Smith punted pretty well before he got hurt," Smothers said. "Overall though we had way too many mistakes, especially with our returns and return coverage. Looking back, we probably moved some kids around on special teams that we shouldn't have."
Spring practice will again be held in May.
"With so many of our players involved in spring sports, especially baseball where they have some of February games, it's best to just hold off until spring sports are done," Smothers said.
One thing that may be different about next season is possible abolishment of the preseason game against Andalusia.
"We haven't made a decision yet. When you play a preseason game, you're subject to possible injuries to key players. That happened to us this season, especially with Jake Bailey. If we do play it, we'll do things in a different way in terms of how long the starters play," Smothers said.