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Athens senior quarterback Rob Ezell has directed the Golden Eagles to a 26.5-points-per-game average in the 2006 playoffs.
Seniors' final game
Athens, Eufaula play for Class 5A marbles
By Brooke Milam
In a veteran showdown with a state championship on the line, two experienced football squads take the field tonight when Athens High and Eufaula compete for the Class 5A title at Birmingham's Legion Field
Both Athens coach Allen Creasy and Eufaula coach Dan Klages guide senior-led teams looking to cap their prep careers with the ultimate prize.
"The thing about seniors in the playoffs is they're fighting for their football lives, so to speak," Creasy said.
"They don't want to end their high school careers on a bad note and that always adds intensity. It's going to lend itself to be a great competition." Athens (11-3) comes in unranked, but has been as high as No. 2 in the Alabama Sports Writers Association's poll this season, before falling to then-top ranked Russellville 32-19 on Oct. 6. Eufaula (14-0) enters the title game undefeated and ranked No. 1.
The two teams have had similar waits since their last championships. Athens' last trip to the championship game was in 1976, when it tied Andalusia 7-7 to become co-champions.
Eufaula last played for the championship in 1981, when it beat Hartselle 39-20. Both were 3A titles.
Athens seniors have a 27-14 overall record since they were sophomores, highlighted by a trip to the semifinals as 10-graders and quarterfinals in 2005.
Eufaula seniors have a 31-6 total since their sophomore season, including no losses this year and an undefeated regular season in 2005.
"This group has lived up to their potential more than they've overachieved," Klages said.
"Our emphasis this year was to be undefeated in November for back-to-back undefeated seasons, something no Eufaula team has ever done."
The pressure may lie with the defenses in today's championship game because both teams have explosive offenses that are bound to put up points.
In the playoffs, Athens has scored an average of 26.5 points per contest and allowed an average of 12.3, while Eufaula has scored an average of 31.8 points per game and allowed an average of 8.3.
In Klages' three years as head coach at Eufaula, he said, his Tigers have been a running team and the statistics this season make that no secret.
The Tigers average 276.6 rushing yards per game as a team, scoring 54 rushing touchdowns this year with just eight passing scores.
Klages said his naturally strong runners have gotten stronger during the years.
"Our talent level has gone up through what we've done in the weight room," Klages said.
Senior quarterback Jerrell Jernigan is Eufaula's main rushing threat, with 124 carries for 1,280 yards and 21 touchdowns this season and an average of 10.3 yards per carry.
Chris Williams' 924 yards and 17 touchdowns and Shyrone Parker's 903 yards and nine scores have made the Tigers' run nearly unstoppable.
"The biggest challenge Eufaula poses is over-playing the running game," Creasy said.
"If you put too much emphasis on their running game, if that's even possible, then they can hurt you throwing it."
The Tigers have used the pass when they needed it this year, throwing for 821 yards and completing passes to 11 different receivers.
"With Eufaula, the game is always in jeopardy regardless of what the score is," Creasy said.
"It'll look like a defense has them under wraps and then, they'll break loose."
Klages said what makes Athens hard to prepare for is that it's almost impossible to know what to expect, as his staff and he counted 23 offensive formations by the Golden Eagles in three game films.
"Athens has a broad-based offense, and if you take away one element, they can counter with something else," he said.
The Golden Eagles are known to favor the pass, evident by senior quarterback Rob Ezell's 157-of-275 passing this year for 2,519 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Senior Jacquez Pride has been Ezell's favorite target, catching 52 passes for 1,203 yards and 13 touchdowns.
All four of 5A, Region 8's playoff qualifiers — Athens, Hartselle, J.O. Johnson of Huntsville and Russellville — advanced to the quarterfinals this season.
In Eufaula's Region 2, Greenville and Eufaula made it to the quarterfinals, while Valley and Charles Henderson of Troy bowed out in the opening round.
And while Eufaula doesn't have the strength-of-schedule that the Golden Eagles face in the regular season, Creasy said that takes nothing away from the undefeated Tigers' accomplishments this year.
"They've beaten everybody they've played and there's something to be said for that," Creasy said.
"People try to talk about strength-of-schedule, but you can't win a state championship on that. I wished you could."
Creasy said his team has risen to the challenge of taking on an undefeated team in the finals, and the chance to play the state's best makes the title game even more special.
"We'd love to win a state championship however we can. But you don't want just morale victories, you want to feel like you have really done something to get that," Creasy said.
"The team that is crowned state champion in 5A this year will have definitely earned it."
Class 2A: Leroy 12, Woodland 7: Joe Fields and Chris Weaver each made two huge plays on defense — one leading to a 93-yard fumble recovery for a score — to lead Leroy to a win over Woodland in the Class 2A championship Thursday.
Leroy (13-2) claimed its second state title in three years by beating Woodland (12-3).
With Leroy trailing 7-0 in the second quarter and Woodland threatening, Fields picked up Trae Strain's fumble at the Leroy 7 and started running.
Just as he was about to be tackled, Fields pitched to Chris Weaver, who ran 70 more yards for the score.
Class 4A: Guntersville 28, Thomasville 27: Chaz Rogers threw three touchdown passes and Tucker Bridges intercepted a last-second, desperation pass near the goal line Thursday as Guntersville won the Class 4A state title.
With the temperature dipping into the mid-20s and the wind chill about 14 degrees, the Wildcats (14-1) held on despite allowing 424 yards offense by Thomasville (13-2), all but 3 of them on the ground.
Rogers threw scoring passes of 34 yards to Bridges, 24 yards to Trevor Diamond and 15 yards to Shannon Cahill. He completed 14 of 18 attempts for 237 yards without an interception.
"We had pretty good pass protection," said Guntersville coach Phil Isom. "Our offensive line played well, and we did the things we had to do to win."
Thomasville had a chance to pull out the win when it got the ball at the Guntersville 40 after a short punt with 1:11 remaining. But Bridges intercepted Jake Overstreet's pass at the 5 to end the threat and preserve the win.
Rogers said he and his teammates never doubted themselves.
"We knew it would be tough. We just kept going and never let up," said Rogers, who was named the 4A MVP.
Athens (11-3) vs. Eufaula (14-0)?
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Legion Field, Birmingham.
TV/radio: CSS will televise the game at 6:30 p.m.
Players to watch: The quarterbacks. Athens' Rob Ezell and Eufaula's Jerrell Jernigan, both seniors, lead their squads in every sense of the word. It could shape up to be a classic dual, but look for them to do it in different ways. While Jernigan has rushed for a team-leading 1,280 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, using the pass sparingly, while Ezell has thrown for 2,519 yards and hit receivers 22 times for touchdowns. Both have been effective, shaping offenses that have put up big totals all year long.
Athens has averaged 30.1 points per game this year and Eufaula 35.6.
Key matchup: Athens offense vs. Eufaula defense. The Golden Eagles have been able to count on big point total in the majority of their games this season. In the title game the Athens scoring weapons will be up against a Tiger defense that has held opponents to 8.3 points per game in the playoffs, including a shutout, and held opponents to 7 or less points in 3-of-4 postseason contest. Eufaula's defense has been keen on causing turnovers, causing 40, 10 more than its own offense has suffered.
Weather: Clear and sunny. The day's high is expected to be 42 degrees, with the temperature falling to a low near 16.
Prediction: Athens 28, Eufaula 21.
Brooke Milam, Daily Sports Writer
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