On paper, Athens' Class 6A, Region 7 opponent this week won't put up much of a challenge. After all, Columbia is unquestionably the worst Class 6A team in the state. The Eagles (0-6, 0-3) are riding a 38-game losing streak and have been outscored 359-0 this season, including a 76-0 loss to Hartselle last week.
So, instead of Athens playing against Columbia Friday night, the Golden Eagles will basically be playing against themselves and seeing if they can get better against a weak opponent.
“The example I always use is the (fictional) North Florence Blue Team,” Athens coach Cody Gross said. “My dad used to say that. I'll tell (the players) I don't care if we're playing the North Florence Blue Team or the New England Patriots, it's going to be about us. We've got to get better. That's what this week's about, just like any week is about. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse, and you ain't going to play very long.”
To drive the point home, Gross has a shelf installed in the Athens locker room with miniature helmets of the teams Athens has beaten this season in order on the shelf. Helmets of Hartselle, Decatur, Hazel Green, East Limestone and Cullman sit on the shelf. The helmet next to Cullman's is a plain white one with the word NEXT written on it.
“It doesn't matter who we play, we're talking about a plain white helmet with black letters that say next,” Gross said. “That's who we focus on. If we beat Columbia, we'll put Columbia's helmet up there and put NEXT right next to it. That's what it is.”
Gross said his players have taken that next message to heart, and have enjoyed good days of practice this week.
“I think we've got some mature football players,” Gross said. “We've got guys who have been through it and I think they know what's at stake.”
While the opponent might not be very challenging, a lot rides on this game for Athens. A victory would guarantee at least a second-place finish in the region and a first-round home playoff game. Athens hasn't hosted a first-round game since 2005.
“That's really, really big,” Gross said. “It will be big for our program and big for our town. We love playing at home, and we've had good crowds. We'd like to play in front of the home folks, for sure.”
Athens has several big games on tap after Columbia. The Golden Eagles will travel to play Muscle Shoals next week, with the winner taking home the region championship. Athens will then play at Class 7A Austin in the final week of the season before the playoffs.
“A lot of folks are open week 10 or try to schedule somebody not quite as tough in week 10,” Gross said. “But, it will prepare us for the playoffs. Of course, Muscle Shoals is pretty loaded, and Austin is the same way. Those two games will definitely get us ready for whoever we're going to face in the playoffs.”