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Golden Tigers grab first win, look to keep momentum going against Brooks

A 42-21 win over St. John Paul II last Friday in Madison kept Russellville’s faint playoff hopes alive. Now comes the hard part—sustaining that momentum against the reigning region champs.

Brooks (3-2, 3-1 in Class 5A, Region 8) will visit Golden Tiger Stadium on Friday for the first time since 1985 to face a Russellville team with its back squarely against the wall. The Golden Tigers (1-5, 1-3) may need to win out in region play to avoid missing the postseason for just the second time in the past 18 years, but last week’s win over the Falcons was a step in the right direction.

“We needed it bad,” head coach Mark Heaton said on Monday morning. “We’re thankful for the win—especially a region win. It gives us a chance to keep pushing toward our goal of getting into the playoffs. We’ve got three tough weeks ahead.”

Up first are the Lions, who were unbeaten in Region 8 play before letting a 26-7 lead slip away last Friday at home in a 29-26 loss to Mae Jemison. That same Jemison team beat Russellville 56-10 at Milton Frank Stadium on September 22.

“Jemison had a few turnovers, and Brooks did a good job of capitalizing on those and controlling the clock and time of possession in the first half,” Heaton said. “Jemison was on the road, and they looked a little flat. They turned the ball over a lot, Brooks makes a couple of plays, and all of a sudden they’re up big. But give credit to Mae Jemison. They fought back, and once the tide started turning and they started clicking, they were really good. They looked like the football team we played a couple weeks ago.”

While the Lions were taking their first region loss, the Golden Tigers were picking up their first region win—thanks in no small part to a career night from senior Bernard Phinizee, who returned the opening kickoff against St. John Paul 85 yards for a touchdown, ran back another kickoff 90 yards for a score and finished with 332 all-purpose yards and three total touchdowns. Fellow senior Robert Hamilton added a pair of receiving touchdowns, including one on which he appeared to be tackled after a short gain but managed to roll right off a defender and keep his feet before racing to the end zone for a 31-yard score.

“Those two guys, Bernard and Robert, are the hardest-working guys we’ve got,” Heaton said. “They go wide open at practice, and they’re willing to do anything you ask them to do. It was big for them to have that kind of night. We’ve had our struggles this year, so for them to be able to see the other side of it and put some things together definitely helped.

“We hope they can carry us through the second half of the season. We need those guys to make plays. When defenses take away one of them, we need the other one to step up.”

St. John Paul’s defense wasn’t able to take away much last Friday night. Russellville, which entered the game with 159 rushing yards total through the first five games, ran 31 times for 184 yards—including 106 on 15 carries by Phinizee and 56 on eight attempts by Hamilton. Heaton credited the offensive line (senior left tackle Will Rushing, freshman left guard Edgar Amaya, senior center John David Palmer, junior right guard Ondre Armstead and senior right tackle John David Aycock) with paving the way for the improved rushing attack, along with senior Jeff Lloyd, who worked in at fullback for the first time this season and made a major impact as a lead blocker.

“Jeff did a good job at fullback,” Heaton said. “We’ll let Roman [Cortez, another senior defensive end] work there some this week just so we don’t gas Jeff too much. Those are two physical guys who like contact. I think you saw in the second half the other night, when we were running the power and kicking out the end or running iso and leading that inside ‘backer with Jeff, they didn’t want any more of it. He was just pancaking guys, rolling them up.

“That’s what happens when you’re willing to be physical for four quarters—you wear on people, and eventually you take over the line of scrimmage late in the fourth quarter. That’s what we have to do in these next three region games, play four quarters of physical football and run between the tackles. That will help us control the clock a little bit more.”

The Golden Tigers were balanced on offense last Friday, with freshman quarterback Luke Barnwell tossing a career-high three touchdown passes. Barnwell completed 11-of-16 attempts for 162 yards—including a deep ball to Phinizee for 44 yards. Hamilton caught three passes for 40 yards, and senior Logan Jones added two catches for 32 yards and a score.

Both teams finished with 346 yards of total offense and 16 first downs, but Phinizee’s two big kickoff returns made the difference. The previous week, Jones had kick returns of 81 yards, 63 yards and 39 yards in a loss at Hartselle.

“We’re getting a lot better in the kicking game,” Heaton said. “We’ve had so much turnover in a lot of those spots. We’re finally getting some consistency with the personnel on the field. Those kickoff returns were big, and I thought our punt block team put some good pressure on their kicker. We had a big punt return [by Jones for a touchdown] called back, and we made our extra points [junior kicker Kenner Perez was 6-for-6].

“Now that the personnel has been consistent, guys are getting a chance to get better at what they do.”

It will take Russellville’s best performance of the season in all three phases to knock off Brooks on Friday. In between losses to Fayette County to open the season and then Jemison last week, the Lions shut out Ardmore (48-0) and Lee (23-0) and held off a late really to beat Lawrence County 42-35.

Brooks is led by junior quarterback Lake Spurgeon, who rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns last week against Jemison while also throwing for 129 yards and a score. Last year in Killen, Spurgeon hooked up with big-play receiver Lazarius Decatur for a pair of touchdowns in a 31-21 win over Russellville.

“Their quarterback makes them go,” Heaton said. “He’s grown up a lot. He’s a great passer, and he’s very agile with his feet. He’s a good dual-threat guy, and they have some weapons to spread it out to. Offensively, up front they’re still really good. Kam Stutts [an Auburn commit] still anchors their offensive line. They’re big and solid and very well balanced.

“Defensively, they have one of the bigger fronts we’ll see all year. They always do a good job in the secondary and at the linebacker position, too. They’re sound and well coached. We’ll have to be very disciplined with what we do and have great execution.”

Heaton said the Golden Tigers will have to eliminate mistakes if they hope to pull the upset on Friday.

“The key for us is, we can’t turn the ball over,” he said. “We’ve got to avoid costly penalties that put us behind the sticks. If we can maintain that, we’ll have a chance to stay in the game. That’s what we told our guys. Let’s go in there prepared to play four hard-fought quarters and give ourselves a chance at the end to win it."

After playing six of their first seven games (including the preseason game at Athens) on the road, the Golden Tigers will now have three of their last four at home.

“I’m glad we get a home game," Heaton said "It’s nice to not have to get on a bus.”

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