By Jonathan Deal
It may not go back 100 years or have state title implications, but the Athens-East Limestone game has become one of the premiere rivalries in North Alabama.
While these teams have not got off to the start they would have liked, you can bet they will both bring their “A” game when the ball is kicked off tonight.
“This has become one of the best rivalries in North Alabama East Limestone head coach Jeff Pugh said. “Whenever we’ve beat them, it’s been close. They are going to play the best game they’ve played all season. They always get up for this game, just like we do.”
East has won the previous two meetings between the teams by a field goal in each of the past two seasons. Tonight’s game should be no different. On paper at least, these teams bring similar squads into the game.
They have each played brutal schedules over the past five weeks. East Limestone began with home games against Class 4A No. 8 Madison County and 5A No. 10 Cullman, followed by a road trip to Russellville. The Indians bounced back the past two weeks with blowout victories over Lawrence County and James Clemens.
Athens has seen an even tougher start to its season playing the top two teams in Class 5A in consecutive weeks. Athens led Hartselle entering the fourth quarter and lost 38-3 at No. 1 Muscle Shoals the following week. The Golden Eagles then hosted 6A No. 5 Austin last week.
“It’s been a tough road and we’re right in the middle of it,” Athens head coach Allen Creasy said. “We don’t have an easy game. It’s tough on the record sometimes, but it makes you better as a team.”
Another similarity between these 5A schools has been injuries. Quarterback Adam Harvey was injured in the opening week against Decatur and has yet to return. Against Austin, Athens lost another quarterback in Harper Ward. His status for this week’s game is unknown.
East Limestone has had several key players injured, but has made the most of the situation by developing depth over the past two weeks in lopsided wins.
“We’ve had some guys pick up injuries and we’ve had to move some guys around,” Pugh said. “We’ve made the most of it though. Some of those guys are a better fit at where we’ve moved them to.”
The Indians will run the ball early and often in this game. Against Lawrence County, East had 15 players carry the football. In a 41-14 win against James Clemens last week, 17 players recorded a carry.
More than likely, East will feature senior Torren Haley in this game. The bruising back carried the ball for more than 100 yards last week and ran for 212 yards in a loss to Cullman earlier this year.
Haley might find it tough to run for that many yards on an Athens defense that has been solid despite giving up more than 30 points in back-to-back games. Led by junior safety Johnnie Anderson, the Athens “D” has been opportunistic this season, scoring three touchdowns from fumble recoveries this season.
“We expect it to be a tough fought game,” Creasy said. “That’s how it’s been since the very beginning. It’s a very important game for us.”
This is a very important game for Athens and East Limestone. Despite the teams’ records, the winner of this game can still make a push for the final playoff spot in 5A Region 8 while the loser is all-but eliminated from post-season play.
Kickoff from Golden Eagle Stadium in Athens is at 7 p.m.