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Hillcrest game a barometer for Demopolis

The Tigers will load up the buses and head to Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa Friday night. That is no small task considering the schedule Demopolis has already faced in the season’s first half.

Amid high expectations and a preseason No. 5 ranking, the Tigers started the season off with a 14-11, come-from-behind win over 6A Wetumpka. One week later, the team hit the road to outlast region foe Chilton County in a 21-14 victory before returning home to play Fayette County. In that third contest, DHS blasted out to a quick lead before turning the ball over five times and sputtering down the stretch to a 32-7 win.

That win set up the team’s most anticipated game of the season against defending Class 5A, Region 3 champion Carver. The strategy was simple. Demopolis looked to establish its authority in the ground game early. That task seemed a given as junior Damarcus James shredded 57 yards of soft, muddy Tiger Stadium turf on his way to the end zone just three plays into the team’s first possession.

A pair of first quarter three-and-outs pitched by the Tiger defense coupled with a 50-yard touchdown reception by Fred Irby on a go route appeared to have Demopolis well on its way to a 4-0 record. Then, all of a sudden, things began to come unraveled for the Tigers.

The offense began to stall. Special teams began to struggle in view of the unfavorable conditions as a pair of DHS punts combined to net a total of exactly zero yards. That gave Carver field position; the one thing Demopolis head coach Tom Causey knew he could not afford to give to an athletic, explosive Wolverine offense.

From there, things began to snowball as Demopolis yielded 19 points in the second quarter, a deficit it could never overcome despite possessing the ball in the Carver end of the field for the vast majority of the third quarter.

“It was tough for them on Sunday for sure,” Causey says of his players’ demeanor when they first arrived to break down film in preparation for Hillcrest. “We had a good day of practice (Monday). But we need some leadership. We need some guys to start taking some ownership in the tam. There is only so much screaming and hollering the coaches can do.”

Causey had similar feelings about his team at this time last year. Following the Carver game, the 2008 Tigers spent a great deal of time talking about leadership. Then they lost to Hillcrest, at home. The key difference between that squad and the one that will take the field Friday night in Tuscaloosa is obvious; record. That team was 1-3 entering the game against Hillcrest and certainly on no one’s radar to make a run at the playoffs.

This team, to the contrary, is 3-1 and still ranks No. 8 in the state according to the latest edition of the ASWA polls.

But Causey is unaffected by the expectations. He speaks of his team now in much the same way as he spoke of it a year ago.

“We’ll find out this week just what kind of leadership we’ve got,” Causey says matter-of-factly.

That is because the Hillcrest game this year, much like it was last year, is a barometer game for the Tigers. Hillcrest presents itself as a tough 6A opponent with a balanced offensive scheme and a stingy defense. Demopolis’ biggest foes for the remainder of the regular season – teams such as region foe Greenville and Class 4A No. 1 Thomasville – will offer many of the same challenges as Hillcrest, a squad that pushed Class 6A’s No. 5 team Tuscaloosa County to overtime a week ago before finally falling.

“They’ve got a great defense, a big defensive line that is strong and physical and fast,” Causey says of the challenge that lies ahead for Demopolis. “They’ve got three good linebackers and a great secondary that doesn’t make any mistakes. They’re a dang good football team. Their record does not indicate how good they are at all.”

The challenge for the Demopolis offense is apparent; hold onto the ball and finish drives. The Tigers have committed eight turnovers in the past two games and watched three separate drives stall inside the Carver 15 during the third quarter.

“They don’t do a lot of blitzing,” Causey says of Hillcrest’s defensive approach. “They are very sound defensively. They get off blocks and get up field and run to the ball.”

On the other side of the ball, Demopolis will be called upon to exhibit discipline, execute assignments and finish tackles against a balanced Patriot attack.

“They are very multiple,” Causey says of the Patriots. “They throw the ball as well as run it. They’ll get in the spread formation or line it up in the (I-formation) and run it straight into the middle of the field”

While the language Causey uses toward his team is very similar to that which he employed 365 days ago when it was 1-3, the atmosphere of the program is considerably different. Rather than the attitude of tough-luck despair that seemed to crowd the locker room a season ago, this Tiger team seems to have a firm grasp on its own limitations.

That fact shows when Causey addresses the things his team did well during its 32-14 loss to Carver a week ago.

“I thought we did a better job of ball security Friday night,” Causey says plainly. “We only had three turnovers when we had five the week before on a dry field. We cut our penalties from nine to five.”

Causey’s words indicate that the Tigers are focused on getting better, a task that is bound to be aided by Friday’s game against a formidable Hillcrest team.