A year ago, Strong entered the postseason with a perfect record having racked up a plethora of lopsided wins along the way.
After capping an undefeated season with a memorable overtime win over Mountain Pine in the state championship game, the Bulldogs enter the 2022 playoffs with some momentum having gone 3-1-1 in their final five games.
Strong (4-3-1), the No. 3 seed from the 2A South, hits the road to face Rector (6-2), the No. 2 seed from the 2A North in the first round of the 2A 8-Man playoffs on Friday.
Game time is set for 7 p.m. from Cougars Stadium.
Friday’s game marks the first time Strong will be on the road for the postseason for an eight-man postseason game, and the Cougars have also enjoyed success having reached the semifinals last year.
For Strong coach Jason Porter, the Cougars are a team that doesn’t beat itself with mistakes.
“They are a semifinalist from last year,” Porter said. “They are a veteran bunch that is used to winning. They are disciplined and we will have our hands full.”
For Rector coach David Hendrix, the Bulldogs present a problem with their speed and athleticism, particularly quarterback Kaiden McHenry.
“Fast,” Hendrix said when asked to describe the Bulldogs.”Really, really fast. They’re very, very athletic. They’ve got one of the fastest kids I’ve seen. He (McHenry) can really go.”
It may seem strange for schools 300 miles apart to have a common opponent, but the Bulldogs and Cougars each have faced Mountain Pine this season.
The Red Devils eliminated the Cougars in the semifinals last year, and they met in September with Mountain Pine winning 36-16.
“We scheduled Mountain Pine because I knew we needed to play someone like that,” Hendrix said.
“They’re very talented. I thought we played alright against them. I think we’re playing better now. Of course, you should be later in the year. We knew what we were up against.”
The Cougars have several players back from last year’s squad that picked up a playoff win over Marvell, and Hendrix believes that will be a plus for his squad.
“I think it helps us,” Hendrix said. “We lost several seniors from last year’s team, but we’re mostly junior-heavy, but several of those kids were out on the field last year, so I think it will help. They know what to expect.”
If there is one issue the Cougars face, it’s that they’ve been on the sidelines since beating Midland 46-12 on Oct. 21.
Rector had a bye week for Oct. 28, but didn’t get to play last week after KIPP Delta forfeited, so there may be some rust for the Cougars to knock off on Friday.
“Obviously, we would’ve liked to have played,” Hendrix said. “We did all we could to get to, but we’re healthier than we were, so that helps some, but obviously we would’ve liked to have played last week.”
The Bulldogs enter the postseason having played Parkers Chapel to a 26-26 tie at Jerry Burson Field last week.
Strong led 20-6 at intermission, but the Trojans rallied to tie the game on the last play of regulation on a Payton Willeford touchdown. The Bulldogs stopped the two-point conversion to preserve the tie.
“We didn’t finish like I wanted,” Porter said. “We were up 20-6 at the half and we let them back in the game by making stupid errors like running into the punter on fourth down or hitting someone after the whistle. Small things like that kill us. I was pleased with the effort for sure.”
Although the Bulldogs couldn’t seal the victory against the Trojans, Porter said it was very beneficial for his team from another aspect.
“I spoke with their coaches after the game and we discussed some things they had picked up on film that has helped us prepare for this week,” Porter said.
The Cougars have enjoyed plenty of success thanks to their sturdy ground game. With juniors Gage Thompson and Gabe Mosley along with seniors Dalton Sanders and Sam Shipley paving the way, junior Jacob Cox earned All-State honors last year and junior Drew Henderson and senior Jackson Hill also will need to be accounted for by the Bulldogs.
“Our offensive line has played really well this year,” Hendrix said. “They’ve done a lot of good things this year up front. They’ve been a pretty physical group.”
Hendrix said Cox was a student of the game.
“He’s one of those kids that’s a football rat,” Hendrix said. “Every weekend, he watches college and pro. He’s very savvy. He understands the game. Of course, he’s very athletic too. That helps. But he’s a football player.”
Porter said the Cougars are very physical with their approach on offense.
“They run a power run style of offense, off tackle a lot,” Porter said. “They will spread it some, but it’s still to run. They have two quarterbacks that they play. One is a better thrower and one is a better runner.”
And it’s that physical nature that Rector has become known for.
“Being physical,” Hendrix said when asked what the key to their success has been this year. “We play a lot of teams that we’re not maybe as talented as, but being physical is our calling card.”
Although the Cougars are known for their punishing ground game, Hendrix said they can throw the ball if the situation presents itself.
“We are and we’re not,” Hendrix laughed when asked about the Cougars’ offensive tendencies. “We’ll throw it if you make us, but we rely on the ground game more.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Cox and Shipley anchor the front at the defensive end spots with sophomore Dalton Lamar also enjoying a solid season for Rector.
Junior linebacker Jacob Mooneyhan has also had a solid year and Hendrix lauded him for his toughness.
“They tackle really well,” Porter said of the Cougars’ defense. “They have a lot of size up front, so we will have to hold our blocks. I have seen some teams hurt them through the air on film, so we will test their secondary.”
Given their ability to control the clock, it would seem the game is sizing up to be a battle between Rector’s physicality and Strong’s speed, which Porter agreed with.
“Absolutely,” Porter said. “I expect them to grind out possessions to shorten the game and to limit our touches. If we can get to the edge and mix it up with some passing, I think we can be successful.”
Hendrix said his offense must find a way to stay on the field to prevent Strong from getting the ball.
“I don’t know that you can slow it down as much as we need to try keep the ball away from them as much as possible,” Hendrix said of trying to contain Strong’s speed. “Sometimes with teams like us, your best defense is your offense. They’re going to get some big plays on us. We know that. We just can’t get shook and just keep doing what we do.”
Schools across the state will be facing the decision of either dropping to eight-man football or returning to 11-man football next year, but Hendrix said he expects Rector to be playing eight-man for the foreseeable future.
“We will be eight-man for a while,” Hendrix said. “I’m not saying we won’t get back into it someday. The last two years we were in 11-man, we were in the playoffs. It’s not a thing like that, it’s just the numbers. Clay County is not growing.”
Rector is in its third year of eight-man football, and Hendrix said his team had to adjust to the format at first, but things have gone smoothly over the last two years with Cougars winning the 2A North last year.
“Our kids have bought into it,” Hendrix said. “At first, it was a little new to us, and we really didn’t understand a lot of things, but once you watch it and you’re in it, it’s no different. It’s the same football. We’re just happy to be playing.”
For the Cougars to advance, Hendrix said his offense must produce.
“Control the football,” Hendrix said. “We just need to go out there and do what we do. We don’t need to do a lot of different things. We just need to stick with what we do.”
If the Bulldogs are to move on, Porter said his team must limit mistakes, adding that his team is about 80% healthy heading into Friday’s showdown.
“We have to limit the mental errors, occasional bad snaps and we are gonna have to be physical up front,” Porter said. “If we can play defense like we did against Spring Hill, we will be OK. They remind me a lot of Spring Hill.”