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Bulldogs look back a year for motivation

SWEET WATER – They’ve waited a year for this game, now it’s just a matter of execution.

When the Sweet Water Bulldogs host Florala in the first round of the Class 1A state playoffs, an impressive win over Class 4A Gulf Shores or a heart breaking character-builder against American Christian won’t be at the top of the Bulldogs’ minds.

“The growth and maturity of this team started a year ago, in the first round of the playoffs against Ariton,” head coach Stacy Luker said after his team concluded its Tuesday night practice. “I remember saying that I didn’t know if we’d win another game [in last year’s playoffs], but I knew our kids learned something from that win.”

For the record, Sweet Water beat Ariton 42-20 last year, and Luker believes his young team took away a great deal of confidence from the experience. Add that to an 8-2 record with a few tough wins and Luker’s team couldn’t be more primed for challenging first-round opponent.

Florala finished the season 7-3 and Luker said the Bulldogs’ opponent Friday night is almost a mirror image of his team.

“They’re a wing-T team, just like we are, and they play great defense,” Luker said. “They run the ball at you, just like we do.”

For that matter, Luker isn’t ashamed to say that his team has focused on two or three offensive sets – much like Florala likely has done this week.

The difference, however, is that Sweet Water doesn’t have a knack for putting up with rushing offenses. In seven of 10 games during the regular season, the Bulldogs gave up less than 100 yards. They held Carrollton to zero rushing yards. And even better, they stopped Gulf Shores for negative-12 yards on the ground and pushed Marengo High School even further back, hammering that backfield for negative-29 yards rushing.

“We think what [Florala] does plays directly to the strength of our team,” Luker said.

This week, however, the blocking assignments and blitz schemes may not matter nearly as much as the mental preparation and physical rest the Bulldogs get.

Luker keeps his injury reports close to the vest, but he’s got banged-up players who need time to heal. He did say there’s a little more concern about his defensive personnel, but he didn’t seem overly concerned.

“This has been a group of guys – for the past two or three years – that always keeps an even keel,” Luker said. “This isn’t an emotional team, they’re always ready to play, and they’ve got experience.”

Though the Ariton win provided a successful experience in post-season play, Luker doesn’t devalue some of the achievements his players have found on the field during the 2004 season.

After a tough opening-game loss to 4A Thomasville, Luker’s squad has handled most of its opponents with ease. On Oct. 15, the toughest challenge of the season came when Sweet Water traveled to Tuscaloosa and took top-ranked American Christian Academy to the final second of the game – unable to score from just a yard away.

“Beating [Gulf Shores] and playing so hard against American Christian was good for this team,” Luker said. “They came back hungry. The kids have used that to get better, and that’s all you can ask.”

Luker probably wouldn’t mind asking for a win against Florala on Friday night, either.