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Tigers eye 5A crown

Tuesday marked the first time any of the current Demopolis Tiger players have suited up for a football practice in the month of December. It was cold, a little bit rainy. But Tom Causey could not help but smile. After all, his Tigers are in the state title game.

As the city dove into its annual Christmas on the River celebration, Causey took note of the oddity that is this week. As he looked over his shoulder, he took note of the candy cane decorations suspended from telephone poles and the unfamiliar carols of crunching pads and coaches’ whistles.

It is an unusual scene for Demopolis. None of the players on the roster have been here before. The last time the Tigers were in a state championship game, the 17 Demopolis seniors were in the seventh grade. Quarterback Ben Pettus and fullback Damarcus James were in the sixth. James’ backfield mate, Saul Palmer, was in the fourth grade.

The year was 2004. Demopolis was in Class 4A and coached by Doug Goodwin — the man who will lead Russellville into Bryant-Denny and try to prevent the Tigers from getting their first 5A state title.

As unusual as it may have been for him at the time, Causey acknowledges that the scene Tuesday was all part of the changing culture of Demopolis football. And the Tigers’ ability to adjust accordingly to the pageantry and fanfare surrounding Thursday’s Super 6 visit will go a long way in determining the outcome of their clash with the Golden Tigers.

“Obviously, when you first walk in (the stadium), it’s different,” Causey said. “We need to walk in and take it all in. But once the ball is kicked off, it’s the same game. It could be played in the parking lot, but it’s the same game we’ve been playing the last 14 weeks.”

Those 14 weeks have seen a number of ups and downs for the Tigers, who took the hard road to the state title round by opening their playoff run with consecutive away games at Shelby County and Greenville. After regular-season losses to region rivals Carver and Greenville put the Tigers in the No. 3 seed in Region 3, an end-of-season loss to Thomasville sent them into the playoffs on a down note.

Still, Demopolis responded with an overtime win against Shelby County and a marquee victory over then-No. 2 Greenville before routing LeFlore and prevailing in last week’s thriller over Spanish Fort.

“They’ve done it all year long,” Causey said of his team’s resiliency. “They’ve played with that kind of character all year long. Obviously, in the playoffs our character was tested on more than one occasion and our guys have risen to the task.”

Now, the Tigers are tasked with limiting a Russellville team that finished as state runner-up to Vigor a season ago. While there is nothing the Tigers can do to counter Russellville’s experience, Causey did indicate that the Golden Tigers are an unusual mix of the four teams Demopolis has faced this post-season.

“They’re very athletic. Their skill guys are fast and very agile. They’re going to be a little bit of everybody we’ve seen,” Causey said. “We’ll find out how we match up physically Thursday night at 7 p.m.”

Once the ball is finally kicked off, Demopolis will be working against an aggressive, quick defense that is adept at forcing turnovers.

“They are dang good on defense,” Causey said. “They play so fast on defense. Their front seven guys are probably as good as we’ve seen all year long.”

That group promises to put pressure on a young offensive line that has seen its issues throughout the year before settling in over the last several weeks.

The improved play of the offensive front has helped Damarcus James shoulder the load for the Tigers. The junior has racked up 134 carries for 949 yards over the last four weeks, missing the 200-yard mark only once in that span when he totaled 195 yards against Spanish Fort last week.

As difficult as the task of moving the ball may prove, Demopolis is also saddled with the job of slowing a multi-dimensional offense with a pro-style quarterback and a junior running back who has already given his verbal commitment to Alabama.

“Offensively, they’ve got a quarterback where the ball comes out of his hand real well and two backs that can run it,” Causey said. “It’s going to be a task for sure. They’re a good football team. Defensively, we’ve got to take away the big play.”

If the Tigers can do that, they could capture their first Class 5A state title and relegate Russellville to runner-up status for the seventh time.