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Golden Tigers circle the wagons for 'crucial' game against Lawrence County

Before they left the playing field at Louis Crews Stadium on the campus of Alabama A&M University last Friday night, Russellville’s players gathered tightly around head coach Mark Heaton on the visitors’ sideline.

The Golden Tigers had just suffered their most lop-sided loss in 44 years, 45-0 to Lee of Huntsville, to drop to 0-2 on the season, and Heaton knew what was waiting on them once they got outside. He wanted to be sure they heard his message first.

“When adversity strikes, you have people come against you,” said Heaton, now in his fourth season at RHS and 10th year overall as a head coach. “There’s a lot of negative talk. I wanted to talk to our guys before they left and talked to anybody else. That was the second-worst I’ve ever been beaten in my career. I told them, ‘People are gonna point the finger at me. They’re gonna point the finger at your teammates.’ That’s fine. We don’t do that inside. We support each other. We stand up for each other, no matter what happens from this point on. We’re the only ones out there working together to try and fix it, so we have to take up for each other and support each other.

“That’s our main focus—to live out the family-type atmosphere and the standards we’ve put in place. I told them how hard that was gonna be. They didn’t understand it right then, but I wanted them to be ready to face the challenge of it.”

A loss like last Friday’s, in which Russellville got out-gained 343 total yards to 76 and failed to score for the first time since a 28-0 loss to Cullman on Halloween night in 2014, can undermine a team’s self-belief. Heaton did his best to nip that problem in the bud when the players arrived at the football facility on Sunday afternoon.

“We know how to win,” said Heaton, whose 27-9 record in his first three seasons at Russellville included a 19-2 mark in region play. “I just reminded them that we’re all winners. We have won. We know how to win. Just because you lose football games, that doesn’t change. We know what it takes to win at a high level, and we’ve been doing that. The last three years, we started out 4-0 or 5-0, ranked in the top five in the state. We’ve been there because we were doing the things you have to do to give yourself the opportunity to be in that situation.

“We haven’t changed anything. The process works. What we do works. We have to go to work every day believing that. The outcome is different right now, but so are the circumstances. There’s nothing else left to do but to work every day and keep doing things the way we know how. We’ll be patient and wait on God’s timing, but we can’t change our winning ways and our winning attitudes.”

As of Monday morning, Heaton’s message seemed to have gotten through.

“Our guys came in this morning and worked like we’re 2-0,” he said. “That means a lot to me. That says a lot for the guys who have been in the program in the past and have laid that foundation. These seniors have been with me four years. They’re the first group of seniors that I’ve had since they were freshmen. These guys know the expectations, because they’re the ones who laid the groundwork and laid the foundation. They’re living every day and working every day in the program that they built. I expect them to take pride in that.

“Losing brings out a losing mentality. Losing will test you. But deep down, if you’re a winner, it will also fuel you a little bit. Once you get past the testing part, it allows you to develop the fuel you need that drives you to be better. That’s something we deal with as men every day in the real world. Those are things we’re going through right now, the things we face as adults and as teenagers.”

In his post-game address on the field last Friday night, Heaton laid out his expectations for his players in no uncertain terms.

“Friday after the game, I told them I only expect two things from them,” he said. “Be there on time Sunday, ready to work with a great attitude and to continue doing things the way we do them. And for them to be loyal and committed to the team, their teammates and their coaches.

“I believe in my guys,” he added on Monday morning. “They’re fighting through some hard times, and we’re fighting with them.”

This was already going to be Heaton’s youngest and least experienced team at Russellville, and that was before a series of transfers, injuries, illnesses and various other defections whittled away at the Golden Tigers’ depth and robbed them of some of their top returning playmakers. Two games into the season, they’re still searching for their first touchdown, and since kicking a short field goal to grab an early 3-0 lead against Deshler in the opener, they’ve surrendered 80 unanswered points.

“The attention to detail has got to be better,” Heaton said. “We’re gonna make the mistakes we’re gonna make, because we are an inexperienced football team in so many areas. We know that comes with the territory. Those will get better every game you play. But the attention to the little things is an area where we have to make tremendous progress.

“Regardless of what grade you’re in or how many nights you’ve played under the lights, you’ve gotta have the will to be self-disciplined and pay attention to the little things and do those things better, for your team.”

Heaton did not attempt to downplay the significance of Friday night’s home opener against rival Lawrence County. The Red Devils (1-1, 1-0) routed St. John Paul II 49-7 last week, and they will arrive at Golden Tiger Stadium bound and determined to leave with their first win over Russellville since 1945. [The Golden Tigers have won all 13 meetings since, including three hotly contested battles since Heaton took over.]

“It’s the next game,” Heaton said, “and you look at it that way in the grand scheme of things. But it’s a region game, and we’re 0-1 in the region. If you start out 0-2 in the region, your back’s really against the wall. You pretty much have to win out to get in the playoffs, and you still have the tough part of your schedule to go. So this is a big game.

“We need to play our best football. We’re at home, and we need to take advantage of that. We need to play the best football game we’ve played all year and eliminate mistakes. This is a crucial point of the season for us.”

The most recent meetings between Russellville and Lawrence County have been marred by numerous personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on both sides. There’s certainly no love lost between the two teams.

“It is a very chippy game,” Heaton acknowledged. “I think it’s developed into a pretty good rivalry over the years. We want to make sure we have the right attitudes and channel those emotions in the right direction. I expect our guys will handle it great.”

As for the game itself, Heaton said that getting the ground game going early will be a big key. Russellville ran for just 32 yards last week at Lee, and freshman quarterback Luke Barnwell has already attempted 55 passes in his first two starts at the varsity level.

“If we can establish the run game earlier in the game, that will help us get going,” Heaton said. “If we can run the football more effectively, maybe that will take some of the pressure off Luke and help him be a little more comfortable.”

Heaton expects a four-quarter battle on Friday, which would be nothing new against the Red Devils.

“They’re a good football team,” he said. “They challenge you, no doubt about it. We’ll have to be ready to play four quarters and then hopefully win it at the end. There’s the potential for it to come down to the end, if we play well.

“We’re prepared to get that first win Friday night. That’s our expectation. That’s our goal. And the kids see it the same way.”

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