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Cougars aim at 2nd straight title

In the middle of the Southern Academy weight room’s erase-board Wednesday, the words “Autauga Academy” had been written in small letters and circled. Surrounding it, in large letters, were phrases like “Pre-game hype,” “Talk,” and other assorted things coaches the world over would label “distractions.”

So why the distractions in huge type and the important thing on the board–Southern’s opponent for Friday night’s AISA Class A state championship game–nearly hidden? A motivational lesson from Southern head coach Shaun Bonds, one borrowed, he says, from the Mel Gibson film “The Patriot”: When you “aim small,” you “miss small.” The narrower your target, the easier it is to concentrate on hitting it.

“I think the most important thing for a game like this,” Bonds says, “is your ability to focus on the game and not get distracted by all the other stuff.”

By this point, distractions or not, it’s almost hard to imagine Southern missing any target it aims for.

The Cougars have won 25 consecutive games, routinely putting lesser opponents well out of reach by halftime. They have proven they can beat good teams in either a low-scoring slugfest (their 15-6 triumph over 1A semifinalist Shelby) or a four-quarter shoot-out (their 35-33 win over 2A finalist Patrician). They have taken other teams’ best shots, like Lowndes Acad.’s opening drive for touchdown or third-quarter score to come within 19-14 in last week’s semifinal, and fired right back. Southern scored the last 28 points of the Lowndes game to win it handily, 47-14.

That win was further assurance for Bonds, he says, that his team won’t be rattled Friday if Autauga takes an early–or even a late–lead.

“They were a good football team,” Bonds says of Lowndes. “They were confident in themselves and came out and hit us. It was another situation where our team has responded. They don’t seem to be bothered if they fall behind. They just keep playing hard. If we can play for 48 minutes again Friday, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

Another reason for confidence, some might say, would be Southern’s 27-0 victory over Autauga in last year’s playoffs. But Bonds says his team won’t watch film from that game and he says what happened in 2004 won’t make any difference on the field in field.

“I don’t think it does. They have a lot of the same kids, so that may motivate them some,” he says, “but for us, you don’t get a mental edge unless you beat somebody over and over. We don’t play them that often. It’s just two good teams that are undefeated and are going to be going at each other.”

There’s no doubt for Bonds that the 12-0 Generals, coming off of a 35-14 home spanking of Shelby, are more than capable of denying the Cougars their second straight state crown.

“We’ve got our hands full,” he says. “They’re playing real solid football and they’re a team that has a lot of weapons.”

The most dangerous of those weapons are the Generals’ one-two punch at running back, no. 1 Idarius “Oopie” Bennett and no. 5 Oscar “Big O” Washington. Bennett tallied 242 yards and two scores on 22 carries against Shelby, while the 5-11, 220-pound Washington bulled his way in for his own pair of touchdowns. Although (like Southern) Autauga likes to keep the ball on the ground, senior quarterback Jesse Daily has talent and experience.

“They play hard and they’ve got some explosive people,” Bonds says. “[Bennett] has big stats this year, [Washington] is a better player. Their quarterback is an excellent player.”

The Generals’ ability to run the ball puts pressure on the Cougars’ defensive front line, led by seniors Allen Langham, Andy Wheeler, and Brad McCrory. But it’s safe to say there will be plenty of pressure on the Generals’ front line as well.

“He knows I’m going to run the ball,” Bonds says. “We’ve got to do what we know how to do. I don’t think he’s going to get away from his running game, either.”

Of course, every other opponent of the Cougars has known that Southern would run the ball, and it hasn’t made much difference. Senior tailback Wallace Drury has racked up 2,799 rushing yards on the season and could easily go over the 3,000 yard mark with another big game. Bonds says that as Drury goes Friday night, so his team will go.

“He’s got to play well. They feed off each other out there. The more he runs, the more excited [the offensive line] gets and the harder they block,” he says. “We have an excellent offensive line. They’ve gotten better and better and hopefully they can open up some lanes. And everybody knows what Wallace can do when he gets lanes.”

Bonds is also hopeful that the higher number of “four-quarter affairs” the Cougars have been involved in will pay dividends if the game comes down to the wire (“We probably have played a tougher schedule than they have,” he says). But however it happens, if Southern prevails and returns to Greensboro with the school’s fourth state championship, it would mean more to the Cougars and Bonds than he can even express.

“There aren’t really words for it,” he says. “To go undefeated two years in a row…not a lot of teams have done that. It’s elite company. It’s magical.

“We’ll go into Troy and play as hard as we can,” he says. “That’s all we can ask of them. Hopefully that’ll be enough.”