Athens looking for elusive playoff victory

Athens quarterback Jordan Scott tries to elude the tackle of East Limestone's Noah Bye during a game earlier this season. The Golden Eagles host Buckhorn in a Class 6A playoff game tonight.

It was a saying that began before the season even started. Something coaches stressed to Athens players as they suffered through preseason workouts and conditioning exercises: We are sick of 11.

The past two seasons, Athens has seen its season end after the 11th game of the season, losing first-round playoff games to Clay-Chalkville in 2017 and Homewood in 2018. Coach Cody Gross doesn't want to see that happen again this year.

“That is something we've probably talked about every week in the offseason,” Gross said. “We're sick of playing 11 games. We've got to get over that hump.”

Athens (7-3) will have a chance to break through the 11-game barrier tonight when they host Buckhorn (4-6) in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs. The Golden Eagles earned a home playoff game by finishing second in Region 7. Buckhorn was the third-place team from Region 8.

It is the first time Athens has hosted a first-round playoff game since 2005, which Gross said is big for the program.

“I think it's very important,” he said. “We've had great crowds all year, and we've traveled well, too. I know it's going to be cold (Friday) night, but we need a big crowd. Hopefully we'll have a bunch of people there.”

Athens closed its regular season last Thursday with a 38-16 loss to Class 7A playoff team Austin, but Gross said the players bounced back from that loss very quickly as they prepared for the playoffs.

“We've had our best week (of practice) of the year, which fires me up,” Gross said. “Really, our scout team was great, and that's what I told them. I told them the reason we've had a good week is because those guys have had a good week. They've given us a great look (at Buckhorn's offense and defense), so our preparation has been good. We've just got to make sure we're ready to play (Friday) night at 7.”

Buckhorn's 4-6 record might not strike fear into many fans, but Gross said the Bucks are a quality opponent that could cause the Golden Eagles problems if they are not prepared.

“They are a real physical football team,” Gross said of Buckhorn. “Their quarterback throws the ball well. They want to be a run-first team, but any time they want to throw it, they have success. They've got a really good receiver (Riley Irwin), one of the best we've faced. He does a great job of getting open, and if they throw it anywhere near him, he catches it.”

Gross said Buckhorn has a very aggressive defense that brings lots of pressure, so it is important for Athens to avoid negative plays and not turn the ball over, something the Golden Eagles have been good at this season.

“We had three interceptions against Austin, but before that, we only had one. And I think we only had three turnovers total as far as the offense turning the ball over. We've done a really good job of taking care of it, and our defense has created some turnovers. That's the kind of team we are. We'll have to make sure we do a good job as far as ball security and create some turnovers of our own.”

Athens has been stuck on 11 games for the past two seasons, but if the Golden Eagles win tonight, Gross doesn't want to stop there.

“I'm tired of getting in the playoffs and being one and done,” Gross said. “If you get to the 12th game, you might as well get to the 13th.”

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