The Athens football program did something this year it hadn't done since 2000 when it won the Class 6A, Region 8 championship, but Golden Eagles coach Cody Gross said the region title won't mean much if the team doesn't back it up in the playoffs.
Athens (7-2) will begin its playoff journey with a home game against Homewood (6-4), the No. 4 team in Region 5.
“(The region championship) is nice, but it really means absolutely nothing,” Gross said. “All that stuff is nice, and I'm proud for our guys, but it honestly doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things. It's something to look back later on and say, 'Hey, we were region champs.' But now, we've got to go beat Homewood.”
Athens was only 2-2 through its first four games but closed the season on a five-game winning streak. Gross said part of that success can be attributed to putting players in the right positions, especially moving senior Cal George to outside linebacker.
George transferred to Athens from Hartselle before the season and started this year's campaign battling with Jordan Scott for the starting quarterback position. But once Scott took control of the quarterback spot, George found a home at outside linebacker, and Gross said it has transformed the defense.
In the final four games of the season, Athens gave up a total of just 38 points. In the previous two games, a loss to Muscle Shoals and a win over Hueytown, the Golden Eagles defense allowed 71 points.
“He's a good football player, and what he brings to that side of the ball is good,” Gross said of George. “His attitude, his intensity and his toughness fit in very well. I would say that, one, it solidified that position, but then, two, they came together as a defensive unit a little bit better at that point.”
Homewood is no stranger to Athens. The Golden Eagles met the Patriots in the first round of the 2018 playoffs and suffered a 24-14 defeat.
“They're very well-coached, solid and play extremely hard,” Gross said of Homewood. “They've got a lot of guys offensively that can do some things. Last week, their backup quarterback was playing, but he was their starter at the beginning of the year. I think he's a Major League pitching prospect, and he has a cannon for an arm. If he's playing Friday, he's not your typical backup quarterback.”
Athens had a few injury problems at the end of the season. Scott missed the Golden Eagles' final regular-season game against Decatur after suffering an injury against Cullman, while starting running back Jaylen Gilbert was banged up against the Red Raiders. However, Athens had an open date last Friday and used the off week to rest up and recover. Gross said both of those players should be good to go Friday night.
“They seem to be good,” Gross said. “The open week definitely came at a good time for us.”
Friday's game hopefully starts a five-week playoff journey, and Gross stressed to his players at the beginning of the week just how special this part of the season is.
“I told them Monday morning, only half the teams in the state are practicing football today,” he said. “And every week after that, that number gets cut in half. We're in the top 50%, and that's something to be proud of. But in 6A football, there's a lot of teams that's got a shot. So whoever you play is going to be a good football team, and that's definitely the case with us.”