For New Albany, Friday night is something dreams are made of.
Not since 1982 have the Bulldogs played for a state championship. No team in school history has won more games than this year’s squad, and on top of this, they will host the defending 4A north half champion in a pivotal third round matchup that feels more like the north half title game.
And it was not that long ago that New Albany’s Ron Price sat in the stands at other schools, dreaming of this game.
“Back then, you would think of playing Lafayette at this point in the season, and for it to become a reality and for both of us to be undefeated and us to host the game, it’s very exciting,” he said. “It’s really special, and we’re thankful for this opportunity and excited about the possibility.”
The two teams enter the game at 13-0 and ranked number one and two respectively in the polls. Both have strong defenses that have held their opponents to season lows statistically, and both boast offensive weapons that can single-handedly change the game. Knowing this game was a possibility and given then talent returning for the Bulldogs, Price worked hard in the offseason to prepare his squad for this level of competition, taking on the Commodores, among other teams, during spring and summer scrimmages.
“Looking back, we really thought this would be a special season, and we knew it was a very special group of talented kids,” he explained. “We wanted back in the spring to get as much competition scheduled as possible, and we went with Lafayette and Aberdeen, letting our kids see the level they’re on and what we wanted to work toward.”
Focusing on the ‘Dores defense, establishing the run will be essential for the Bulldogs, as well as executing on every offensive possession, something the ‘Dawgs struggled with early on against Kosciusko in the second round.
“We’ve watched film and no one has really had success against them,” Price said of the ‘Dores’ defense. “As an offense, we just have to take pride in doing what we do and go out and be successful in getting to our blocks and maintaining our blocks. We’ve got to be able to run the football. No one has been able to do that successfully against them, but that’s our goal. We want to establish the run, and when the ball’s thrown, we have to get open and make the plays.”
New Albany will continue to look to Kelvin Worship to help establish the run game, as the senior has 1,333 yards on the ground this season with 18 touchdowns.
Defensive players of interest for the Commodores include Jamel Davis, who leads the Commodores with 110 tackles (8.5 per game) and Keeyon Tyson, who has recorded 11 sacks this season. As a team, Lafayette enters the contest with 35 sacks and 13 interceptions.
The strength of Lafayette lies in their offensive stars, Jeremy Liggins and Demarkus Dennis, as the Commodores run a spread offense, focusing primarily on running the ball.
“Normally in the spread, you pass the ball, but they spread you out to run the ball,” defensive coordinator Rolandus Cox said. “They like to run the option, and their line is excellent. They do a great job of getting on defenses and staying on them.”
Liggins is the workhorse of the unit with 2,293 yards of total offense (1,408 passing/ 885 rushing), while Davis is the team’s leading rusher with 1,937 yards and 26 touchdowns. The leading receiver for the Commodores is Anfernee Gooch with 724 yards and eight scores. Lafayette possesses a big offensive line, but Cox hopes his unit’s speed with keep the pressure on Lafayette, much like they have all season.
“Just about every game we’ve played, our opponent’s offensive line has been bigger than our defensive line, but Coach (Robert) Garrett has done an outstanding job teaching the kids to go after it,” Cox said. “It’s hard for the big guys to get them when they come up on them so quick.”
“Coach Price told us they can score easily, so we’re going to try to contain the quarterback and keep everything in front of us,” senior Kareem Brown said. “We want them to try to beat us with the deep ball. They like to run the ball a lot, so we’re going to try to hold them down.”
New Albany’s defense is allowing an average of 7.8 points per game along with 75.6 tackles and has 28 sacks on the season. Cox feels a complete game by his unit could be enough to take down the Commodores.
“It’s going to take four quarters of sound football,” he said. “Everyone has to do their responsibilities, from beginning to end. If we do that, we have a good chance of being victorious Friday night.”
Making the dream a reality
When Price took over this team in 2008, building the program and turning New Albany into a football community were among his top goals. In his third season at the helm, he and his team now face the biggest game in school history.
“When I got this job, this is what I had in mind for our program and community,” he said.
“We wanted to make football a priority and get the fan base excited about coming to Kitchens’ Field. The fans have been outstanding all season, and we hope they’ll be here and be loud and show these kids that what they’ve done has been very special and that they appreciate that.”
This week has been exciting for the entire community, but staying focused is key for the Bulldogs at this point in the playoffs.
“We’re very excited about this week,” Brown said. “We have a chance to prove ourselves and let everyone know we mean business. We’ve been focused and we’ve worked hard to get to this point, so we’re just trying to stay focused and come out and play.”
Friday's matchup will be among the largest in school history at Kitchens’ Field. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., and the winner of the game will advance to play the Shannon/Noxubee County winner in the north half championship next week.