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Junction City ready to take on Gurdon

by Jason Avery | November 11, 2021 at 10:00 p.m.

Two years ago, Junction City and Gurdon played a classic in the state semifinals with the Dragons prevailing to reach the state finals.

Tonight, the Dragons and Go-Devils renew acquaintances in the first round of the 2A playoffs.

Game time is set for 7 p.m. from David Carpenter Stadium.

The Dragons (5-4) are the 8-2A’s No. 2 seed, while the Go-Devils (6-4) are the 5-2A’s No. 4 seed.

Both schools have had plenty of success in the postseason.

In addition to reaching the semifinals in 2019, Gurdon got to the semis last year, falling to eventual state champion Fordyce. The Go-Devils have not been ousted from the first round of the playoffs since being downed by McCrory back in 2010.

Junction City saw their streak of reaching the state finals end at three last year with a loss to Des Arc in the quarterfinals.

Both schools also enter off of bye weeks.

“There’s some similarities as far as the faces that are going to be on the field Friday night,” Gurdon coach Kyle Jackson said of the encounter from two years ago. “A couple of their guys got some good experience there as sophomores and we’ve got some as well that played in that game. I guess you can say it’s a little bit of a smaller stage being it’s the first round as opposed to the semis, but it’s still playoff football. The week doesn’t matter. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do on Friday night. Hopefully, you play your best and move on.”

Junction City coach Brad Smith said the Go-Devils will vary their looks on offense.

“They have a bunch of different power formations and see if you’ll line up wrong,” Smith said. “If you line up wrong, they will hammer you.”

The Dragons and Go-Devils are similar in that they have upperclassmen that haven’t had the opportunity to play until this season due to the previous classes being so talented and deep.

“I guess we probably lost 20 out of the 22 starting spots from last year with a bunch of them being three-year starters, so a lot of new faces for us,” Jackson said. “We’ve got some kids that have seen some meaningful snaps throughout the years, but a lot of new faces in different places.

“We did have two or three guys that saw some reps, but as a whole, a lot of new guys in there. You can practice all you want, and we’ve been fortunate enough the last couple of years to have enough on the roster to play a short JV schedule, which you hope gives them some reps, but there’s still nothing like being out there on a Friday night. It takes a couple of weeks to get the jitters out or get to playing good football.

“I think we got a little bit tricked maybe into thinking we were ready for it, but as far as maybe not playing the best competition there earlier the year, then we ran into some good teams at the end of the year. I guess our deficiencies or lack of experience kind of came out. We’re going to have to grow up quick. We’re not going to be able to sit around and whine and pout about it. I promise nobody in Junction City cares if we’re young and inexperienced. They’re going to be there at seven o’clock ready to do what they do.”

Smith cited Kristopher Norman as an example of a player who has had to master several positions on defense.

“That’s what you have to do. You’ve got to rely on those guys,” Smith said. “Kristopher Norman was a starting outside linebacker, but he spent the first five games as a starting inside linebacker, then we moved him to safety, so he’s getting really, really better at it, but he’s been in an inexperienced role as those things go.”

With many new faces, there have been some growing pains for Gurdon.

“We won some games and thought we were playing pretty well, and we were playing pretty well, pretty sound football, not necessarily making many mistakes,” Jackson said. “Obviously, some of that as well maybe the competition wasn’t that great in some of those games.

“Then we get into conference play, and our conference is unique this year as far as there’s only four us. Really all four teams are quality teams on any given night, but it seemed like we saved up every mistake and turnover that we could possibly save all year and just unloaded them there once we got into conference play.

“One game we had six turnovers with five of them being fumbles, the next week we had five turnovers with four of them being interceptions, so just not playing smart, fundamental, winning football, and you just can’t do that against a good team, which is why we’re sitting in fourth place in the conference.”

The Dragons found themselves at an uncharacteristic 2-4 after a three-game losing streak, but Junction City finished the regular season with three straight lopsided wins and enters the postseason with some momentum.

“We really look like we’re getting better, and that’s the key to this right now,” Smith said. “We’re understanding more. We had so much inexperience, maybe not experience in playing, but inexperience in the positions we have them playing now.”

As the playoffs start across the state, most teams playing this week will have had only one week to prepare for their opponent. That is not the case for the Dragons and Go-Devils, who were both idle last week.

“We went back and tried to get some things worked out, so hopefully this Friday, we’ll get back to at least playing good, solid football and not beat ourselves,” Jackson said.

“That was the thing there during a two, three-week span. We didn’t really have to worry about anyone else beating us, we did a good enough job of beating ourselves through our mistakes or lack of discipline or whatever it is. Hopefully, we’ve got that figured out. If not, then we won’t be playing very much longer.”

Smith said the extra week allowed the coaching staff to try out different ways to stop Gurdon.

“We got a good look at the main things they run,” Smith said. “We got a dress rehearsal on some stuff, and we found some stuff that we did not like and threw out. You usually don’t get that in a seven-day period. You have to pretty much stick with what you’re going on, but the extra week really, really helps us as far as allowing you to try some things and you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time if they don’t work.”

One player to watch for Gurdon is two-way standout C.J. Dickerson, who rushed for 220 yards against Lafayette County and 200 yards against Foreman.

“He’s always been a good player here,” Jackson said. “He’s like a lot of our other seniors, they’ve just been playing behind such a big class the last two years, his carries were limited.

“We’ve tried to hold him off of defense a little bit here lately. He’s been banged up since the middle of the season with bruised ribs and a pulled hamstring, so we try to limit his reps.

“When he’s fresh and rolling, he’s by far our most explosive player. We try to get him the ball on the edges. He’s done a tremendous job for us.”

Fellow senior Sam Bell is a team captain who averages nearly six yards per carry and has scored eight touchdowns for Gurdon.

“He’s our leader, and he’s done a great job in the backfield as well as starting in the secondary,” Jackson said.

Junior tight end Bryce Bratton averages 24.4 yards reception. Overall, he has 13 catches for 317 yards and four touchdowns.

“We had a kid break his leg in the first quarter of that game in the semifinals, and he had to step in as a freshman,” Jackson said. “It was a wide-eyed moment, but he did a great job that night and he’s continued to get better. He hardly ever comes off the field.”

If you’re looking at a potential future college prospect, freshman Bradyn King has made an immediate impact for the Go-Devils on the offensive line.

“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve played a freshman on the varsity,” Jackson said.

“He’s probably overall our best football player. He’s going to be a dandy. He’s had some freshman growing pains here and there, but he’s done a tremendous job for us on the offensive line. We’re excited to have him for three more years.”

Jackson has been pleased with his seniors for filling in the vacancies left by graduation.

“We don’t have that few of them, we’ve got 12, which is a pretty good, solid number for 2A football,” Jackson said. “A lot of them are good football players, but they’ve had to play behind that group. We had 17 seniors and I think 10 of the 17 were three-year starters, so when you’re behind that big group, you’re not getting as many reps as you would if you had a normal-size or skill-level class in front of them. They’ve always been there doing what they were supposed to do. Now it’s their time. They do a good job of leading. They’re all great kids and they show up every day ready to work hard. I’m expecting them to do the same thing this week.”

The Dragons’ offense has been on a roll during their winning streak with Jamal Johnson and AJ Ivory each posting two games off 100-plus yards on the ground, and Smith said Junction City will see a variety of looks from Gurdon’s defense.

“Multiple. It looks like a 50, 43, some 42. They definitely make you work and study to defeat them,” Smith said.

Jackson said he sees plenty of similarities from the meeting in the semifinals back in 2019.

“I see a lot of the same of what we saw two years ago,” Jackson said. “Nothing real flashy or fancy offensively, they’re just going to line up and do what they do, and that’s what good teams do. Obviously, strong running game really with two or three different guys. Ivory looks like he’s going to be a load to bring down. We did see them this summer at a team camp in Magnolia, so we’ve got a little bit of familiarity with the personnel and whatnot as far as whose on the field.”

Smith said for the Dragons to slow down Gurdon’s offense, they must be fundamentally sound.

“We need to make sure we line up properly,” Smith said. “Keys change with formations, and they put a lot of pressure on you to be sound in where you line up.”

Jackson said the Dragons’ defense has the usual ingredients to it.

“Defensively, it looks like a Junction City defense,” Jackson said. “Huge up front, some guys on the back end on the second and third levels that can run. I think they have a good idea of who they are, and they’re not going to line up and try to trick you on either side of the ball.

“They’re going to be who they are, and there’s certainly something to be said for that. There’s no reason for them not to. They’ve had a ton of success over the years doing that, so we expect to see the same thing Friday night.”

Smith said his team had to contend with a stomach virus during their bye week, but despite that, the Dragons got plenty of work done.

“Pretty good,” Smith said of the week off. “We still had the tail end of that stomach virus that’s been going around. Hopefully it’s flushed itself out of the area.

“We worked four days and let them have Friday off because our rule is if we’re not playing on Friday, we’re not going to try to put a game in there. We’ll give them Friday off to do their own thing.”

One player the Dragons won’t have for the playoffs is two-way lineman Kevin Newberry, who recently had knee surgery.

“We lost Kevin for the year,” Smith said. “I think Kevin had surgery last week, and we’ve known that for quite a few weeks, but we should be good to go.”

For Gurdon to advance, Jackson said his team cannot turn the ball over.

“We cannot beat ourselves,” Jackson said. “We can’t turn the ball over. It doesn’t matter how we do it, we can’t turn the ball over. Our formula based on our personnel and who we have this year, we don’t necessarily have the amount of explosive players or capabilities as we’ve had the last couple of years.

“We cannot get behind the sticks early in the downs. It’s going to have to be pretty football to me, what the average fan would probably call boring, but that’s just who we are this year on the offensive side of the ball.

“Defensively, we’re going to have to be ready to roll up our sleeves and play big-boy football.

“There’s not anything tricky about what Junction City does. They’re going to come in and do what they do, and that’s run behind that big offensive line, get a kick-out block, and let No. 9 (Ivory) take it downhill.

“They do it well. There’s no magic formula or anything you can draw up on the board. You’re going to have to put your hand in the dirt and be ready to play big-boy football or your season is going to be over.

“There’s three or four guys that can run that once they get out on the edge, we’re going to have to get them tackled and limit their explosive plays.”

Smith had similar thoughts on the Dragons’ keys for winning the game.

“You’ve got to line up right,” Smith said. “You can’t have the silly penalties, you’ve got to protect the football, just the basic things.”

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