East Limestone's football team has a chance to do something only five other teams in the history of the Indians program has done — win a region championship.
After last Thursday's 45-14 win over Ardmore clinched a first-round home playoff game, East can take one more step up the ladder and win the Class 5A, Region 8 championship with a win Friday over Russellville.
Not many people would have predicted that at the beginning of the season when East was forced to cancel its first game due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions and lost to Class 2A Mars Hill the following week 21-0.
But East Limestone has reeled off six consecutive wins since that defeat, including five region victories. The Indians (6-1, 5-0) will face a stern test against the only other undefeated team in the region, Russellville (5-1, 4-0).
“I'm very proud of this team,” East Limestone coach Jeff Pugh said. “I told them in the history of the school, this is only the sixth chance for a team to win a region championship. They're part of a special group, and to overcome what we've had to overcome this year with players missing about every week, the next man has been stepping up enough to keep us going.”
East Limestone has not played a game yet with its full roster, with players having to miss games due to COVID-19 quarantine protocol. The closest they came to a full roster was last week when only one player had to miss the Ardmore game due to quarantine.
But the Indians haven't let that affect them. They've just kept checking off victories.
“It's a testament to how hard they've worked and how much they enjoy playing the game,” Pugh said of his players. “I'm proud of them and just hope we can keep it going.”
Pugh said his team will face perhaps their toughest test of the season in Russellville. The Tigers' only loss was a 38-14 defeat Sept. 25 against Class 6A Hartselle, but Russellville has dominated its Class 5A opponents.
Other than the Hartselle game, Russellville's defense has allowed just 21 total points in the other five games, including three shutouts.
“They haven't had too many people score points on them,” Pugh said. “Teams have struggled to move the ball against them and struggled to score. This is going to be a game where we have to play mistake-free if we want to win the game.”
East Limestone has mostly relied on its running game this season, but the Indians proved last week they can pass the ball when they need to. Senior quarterback Dillon Parris had the best game of his career, completing 11-of-12 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
Pugh said it was important for Parris to have a good game against Ardmore, because it will force the Russellville defense to honor the pass instead of lining nearly everyone up at the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
“That couldn't have come at a better time, because now they've got to honor our play-action pass,” Pugh said. “Hopefully we can do some things to make them honor it even more if they load the box. If they load it up and we can hit them with those plays over the top, it will keep them from stacking the box so much and open up the running game.”
East Limestone's defense will face a big test as well. Russellville returned nearly everyone from last year's playoff team, and Pugh says the Tigers' offense is tough to stop.
“They've got about 40 formations they run stuff out of,” he said. “They've got two quarterbacks who rotate in and they're both good at throwing and running the ball. They've got good receivers and three good running backs. They're very, very good.”
Pugh said his team has played strong in the fourth quarter all season and hopes this game follows the same script.
“Hopefully, we can be in the game in the fourth quarter and make a game out of it,” he said. “Our kids have always played hard and played hard in the fourth quarter, so maybe we can do it again.”