Athens head coach Cody Gross has one word for Hartselle's 14-game winning streak over the Golden Eagles: sickening. It's something he wants to see change as Athens hosts the Tigers tonight in its Class 6A, Region 7 opener.
Athens hasn't defeated Hartselle on the football field since a 23-13 victory in the quarterfinals of the 2006 Class 5A playoffs. Athens would go on to win the state championship that year, but Hartselle has dominated the series since then.
“It's just sickening,” Gross said of Hartselle's winning streak. “It's something we really have got to change.”
Gross was the offensive coordinator on that 2006 team, but his return has head coach in 2016 hasn't ended the Tigers' domination over the Golden Eagles. Hartselle has posted wins of 41-7, 35-7 and 21-10 in Gross' three seasons as head coach.
“Ever since I've been here, right off the bat, we've dug a hole,” Gross said. “Two years ago, it was 28-0 super quick, and last year within the first five plays for them offensively it was 14-0. Obviously, we've got to start better.”
A lot is new at Hartselle this year. Former state-championship winning coach Bob Godsey resigned to take the head coaching job at Madison Academy, and several of the Tigers' key players from last year, including quarterback Luke Godsey and running back Keondre Swoops, graduated.
However, there is still a lot of talent on the Tigers' roster, including linebacker Jackson Boyer and running back Brinten Barclay, and coach Godsey was replaced by Bo Culver, who took Deshler to a Class 4A state runner-up finish last season.
“We always say Hartselle is Hartselle, and I think that's true,” Gross said. “Of course Coach Godsey is gone, and he kind of put his stamp on the program, but you can still see the effects of that. I think all the assistants are still in place. Bo Culver is an awesome guy and a really good football coach. It looks to me like they'll just pick up where they left off.”
Hartselle brings a 1-1 record into the game, having lost 45-14 to Class 7A Austin in the season opener and defeated Class 4A Brooks 49-29 last week.
Athens opened its season last Friday with a 21-14 loss to Gardendale, but Gross said the score could easily have been different but for some crucial mistakes. Athens ran twice as many plays in the first half as Gardendale but still went into halftime down 7-0 after losing a fumble at the 1-yard line and having a 78-yard touchdown run called back for a holding penalty.
“I think we pretty much dominated the football game everywhere except the scoreboard, and that's what matters,” Gross said. “We had three mental mistakes defensively that resulted in easy touchdowns for them, and everything we got we had to earn. We had a couple of crucial penalties and fumbled a snap on the 1-yard line. We had 40 snaps in the first half and didn't score a point. The game was going the way we wanted it to go, except we didn't end up in the end zone. We've got to fix that, but I feel confident that we will.”
Gross said one thing Athens needs to do is generate more explosive plays. The Golden Eagles had very few plays longer than 15 yards, while Gardendale had several long plays, including all three of its touchdown passes.
“That was the difference,” Gross said. “They had three explosive plays for touchdowns. We had one we could've caught, we had one we overthrew and a 78-yarder that was called back for a holding penalty. Driving the football is a hard thing to do without messing up at some point, whether it's a bad snap or a fumble or a negative play. We are going to have to come up with some more explosive plays.”
Gross said quarterback Jordan Scott has had a great week of practice after getting his first varsity game action last Friday.
“I think there's going to be some growing pains,” Gross said. “It's tough to be thrown in this league, and Gardendale is a heck of a football team. To be thrown into that type of competition is tough, but he's a competitor and a perfectionist, and he's had a great week of practice. But there's no practice like the real deal, and we got a good dose of that last week.”