It is a game that no one knew for sure was going to take place until last Friday night and yet, it may well be the most anticipated contest of the year in Marengo County. Linden’s public address announcer exclaimed to the crowd in the closing moments of last week’s win over Maplesville that fourth round contest against Sweet Water was “Marengo County’s Iron Bowl.”
The anticipation and excitement surrounding the Linden-Sweet Water rivalry has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks. But the phenomena does not spill over onto the field.
“I think some of the rivalry and intensity of the game comes from the fans,” Sweet Water head coach Stacy Luker said. “You’re talking about a group of kids that know one another and have pretty good relationships with one another and, I believe, have a great deal of respect for one another.”
Talk of the significance of the game centers squarely on its status as a fourth round playoff matchup where Luker and Linden head coach Andro Williams are concerned. The long-time friends and colleagues recognize the significance of Friday night’s contest only in that it punches the winner’s ticket to the Super Six state championships in Auburn. There is no mention of the fact that Linden has not defeated Sweet Water since 2001. There is no talk of emotion or intensity. This time of year, their measured words focus only on the business at hand, providing an indication of the same professionalism that brought the two squads to this point.
The two coaches have squared off head-to-head three times, with Luker’s Bulldogs winning all three contests by a combined score of 111-27. But the latest meeting between the two proved much more competitive as Linden lost 21-12 in the fourth week of the regular season.
“We had eight snaps the whole second half that game,” Williams remembers. “Turnovers and playing the game on special teams. We’ve got to make sure we play in all phases of the game. They played their offense to keep our offense off the field.”
In recent weeks, the Patriots have blown out Brantley and previously undefeated teams McKenzie and Maplesville. Still, Williams feels the Patriots have played no team that compares to Sweet Water.
“Nobody. It might not even be close to playing the brand of football they play,” Williams said. “They lull you to sleep offensively until they get a big play. (This season) might be one of the best coaching job I’ve seen him do in a long time.”
Luker holds a similar respect for Linden’s capabilities, citing the team’s defensive effort in the first meeting of the season.
“They held us to about 200 yards of offense. We just survived the game,” Luker said. “They look to be a whole lot better. They are throwing a whole lot more and they have the best running back in the state (Kendarius Fritts).”
“They are definitely an improved football team. They are definitely at a point where they are playing the best they’ve played all year,” Williams said. “I feel like our team has gotten better as well the last 13 weeks.”
The cast for this go-round will be slightly different than the last meeting as Auburn commit Chris Landrum is back from an ankle injury that cost him most of the season. On the Linden side, defensive lineman and former Bulldog Ryan Preston is on the field after sitting out the regular season. But the philosophies and the schemes are the same.
“I don’t know how you fool each other,” Luker said of the familiarity he and Williams have with one another. “He’s always had a wrinkle or two every time we’ve played them. He’s a little more new school than I am. I don’t have any wrinkles and he knows I don’t have any wrinkles.”
“I guarantee he ain’t doing a whole lot of fooling and I ain’t doing a whole lot of fooling either,” Williams said.
“We’ve just got to line up and block and tackle. That’s what it is going to come down to.”
Linden travels to Sweet Water Friday night with a trip to the state championship game on the line. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.