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Strange surroundings: Realignment lands Russellville in a hardly recognizable new region

Buckle up, Golden Tiger fans. The Russellville football program is poised to go places it’s never been.

Literally.

Corner. Dora. Hayden. Head coach Mark Heaton and company may need a road map to navigate their way through the newly aligned Class 5A, Region 7, which will be their home for at least the next two seasons. Nametags might not be a bad idea either.

These are certainly unfamiliar surroundings.

“The newness of it is pretty neat,” said Heaton, who has guided the Golden Tigers to a 30-16 record since taking over the program in 2014. “The last four years, the region has pretty much had the same look. Being able to travel to some different areas and see some different kinds of football will be exciting. I’ll enjoy preparing for those games and the different systems we’ll see. I’m excited about a lot of those teams coming over.”

The only two familiar faces Russellville will see in region play next fall are Lawrence County and West Point. The Golden Tigers and the Red Devils have developed an intense rivalry as region opponents over the past eight seasons. West Point was a member of that same region from 2012-15, so Russellville knows the Warriors pretty well, too.

Beyond that…well, that’s what nametags are for. According to AHSFHS.org, the Golden Tigers have never faced Corner or Hayden, both of whom will accompany West Point in making the move from Class 5A, Region 6 into the new-look Region 7. Then there’s Dora, a team Russellville most recently defeated 40-8…in 1987. That’s the only meeting on record between the Golden Tigers and the Bulldogs, who went 9-3 this past season at the 4A level and will now compete as the smallest 5A school in the entire state.

Hamilton, also making the jump from Class 4A into Class 5A, Region 7, should be a familiar opponent to Russellville fans old enough to run for President. The Golden Tigers and the Aggies met every season but two between 1971 and 1995, but they haven’t played since.

Finally, there’s Jasper, a familiar school with an unfamiliar name. Formerly known as Walker High School, the Vikings have squared off with Russellville eight times since 2000, including four straight years from 2010-13. Jasper is moving down from Class 6A and will be the largest school in Region 7 and the fourth-largest 5A school in the entire state.

“Jasper coming down from 6A, they had a tough year last year, but in week ten they were playing with their third-string quarterback,” Heaton said of the Vikings, who finished this season with a 3-7 record—the same as the Golden Tigers. “That’s a game that Russellville used to always play when they were Walker, so it’s neat getting them back. Dora coming up from 4A, they had a great year last year, so we’re excited to be a part of that. There are so many different ones we’re looking forward to playing, ones that I’ve never played before and have only seen a couple of times.

“I’m excited. It’s really different. The only team from the previous region we’ve had the last four years is Lawrence County. We’re excited to keep them inside the region. That’s been a really good game the last few years. And we’re excited about the new additions we have coming in, too.”

Gone from Russellville’s old region are Mae Jemison and Lee-Huntsville, both of whom will move up to 6A; Brooks and St. John Paul II, both of whom are dropping down to 4A; and East Limestone and Ardmore, both of whom will remain as the only two holdovers in a practically brand-new 5A, Region 8.

Of the eight teams in Russellville’s new region, five (Corner, Dora, Hayden, Lawrence County and West Point) made the playoffs this season. Only two (Dora and West Point) finished with a winning record.

“I think it’s a very competitive region for us,” said Heaton, whose team bounced back from an 0-5 start to go 3-2 down the stretch and narrowly miss out on a playoff berth. “It’ll give us a chance to build on what we did during the second half of the season this year. We’re also excited about the non-region games we picked up.”

Indeed, Russellville’s non-region schedule has undergone significant changes as well. Deshler, of course, remains a fixture in the season opener, but Hartselle and Colbert County are gone, replaced by a pair of Class 4A opponents—Haleyville in Week Five and Central-Florence in Week 10.

“When you take those games into account and also the addition of the new region games, it’s a very competitive schedule,” Heaton said on Sunday. “A lot of those games are a lot closer, which should cut down on travel. Plus, I like playing teams that are a little closer by because it gives you a chance to create more of a rivalry.”

Haleyville (where Heaton served as head coach in 2012 and 2013 before arriving at RHS) has not appeared on Russellville’s schedule since 1999. The Golden Tigers haven’t faced Central since 1983.

“I wanted to keep Colbert County [in Week 10], but they dropped down to 2A,” Heaton said. “With them being three classifications away from us, it would not help us in a tiebreaker situation. We wanted to find someone close by within two classes to be able to utilize that, because that’s the exact situation we were in this year. At least it gave you an opportunity to win that game and get in the playoffs. If Colbert County had been 2A this year, it would have done us no good.

“I’ve played against Central in the past when I was at Haleyville. They do a tremendous job, and they’re very well coached. Heath Wood does a great job up there. He’s a friend of mine. They’re a classy program, and we have a lot of respect for them. That’s definitely somebody we’re excited about having.”

Haleyville, which Heaton led to a 10-2 record in 2013, replaces Class 6A Hartselle as the Golden Tigers’ mid-season non-region opponent.

“Week five, I always like to play a good, solid football team,” Heaton said, “preferably one as close by as you can within your area. It gives you a good indication as to where you are in terms of playoff potential at mid-season. With Haleyville, we’ve been trying to work that out the last four years. It’s been tough, because they’ve been in a seven-team region and we’ve been in an eight, but it worked out this year.

“We’re right down the road from each other, so it should be a great gate and a very competitive game. It’s a community right down the street from us, and the kids on both sides really get after it.”

After playing an unbalanced schedule in each of the past two seasons (six games at home and four away in 2016, followed by the reverse of that in 2017), Russellville will go back to a standard five-and-five slate in 2018. The Golden Tigers will host Deshler (Week 1), Hayden (Week 3), Lawrence County (Week 6), Hamilton (Week 7) and Dora (Week 9). They will travel to Corner (Week 2), West Point (Week 4), Haleyville (Week 5), Jasper (Week 8) and Central (Week 10).

“We’re really excited about the way it fell, too,” said Heaton, who was still nailing down the final details on a fall preseason jamboree set for August 24 at Fayette County. “We’ll have five home games and five away games this year. The opportunity for the fan base to grow is gonna be there. Most of these schools travel really well, and that’s exciting, too. Kids love playing in front of big crowds. We had a tough time in the last region getting big fan bases from other teams. We’ll see more people in the seats, which is good.”

Better buy those nametags in bulk.

Below are profiles of each of the eight teams that will compete in Class 5A, Region 7 starting next fall.

Russellville Golden Tigers

Enrollment: 529.95 (21st in Class 5A)

Head coach: Mark Heaton (30-16 record in four seasons)

2017 record: 3-7 (3-4 in Class 5A, Region 8)

Playoffs: DNQ

Points scored per game: 15.9

Points allowed per game: 32.9

Record over the last five years: 34-22 (25-10 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Three (3-3 record, one quarterfinal appearance)

All-time record versus other Region 7 teams: 64-40 (with 7 ties)

Jasper (formerly Walker High School) Vikings

Enrollment: 592.5 (4th in Class 5A)

Head coach: Heath Brunner (30-22 record in four-plus seasons)

2017 record: 3-7 (1-5 in Class 6A, Region 6)

Playoffs: DNQ

Points scored per game: 14.7

Points allowed per game: 31.1

Record over the last five years: 30-23 (20-13 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Two (1-2 record)

All-time record versus Russellville: 18-12 (with 3 ties)

Last meeting with Russellville: Lost 20-14 in 2013

Hayden Wildcats

Enrollment: 521.8 (23rd in Class 5A)

Head coach: Keith Register (23-31 record in five seasons)

2017 record: 5-6 (4-2 in Class 5A, Region 6)

Playoffs: Lost 31-21 to Lee-Huntsville in round one

Points scored per game: 25.1

Points allowed per game: 30.1

Record over the last five years: 23-31 (14-19 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Three (1-3 record)

All-time record versus Russellville: Never met

Lawrence County Red Devils

Enrollment: 451.1 (38th in Class 5A)

Head coach: Rich Dutton (27-36 in six seasons)

2017 record: 5-6 (3-4 in Class 5A, Region 8)

Playoffs: Lost 28-12 to Mortimer Jordan in round one

Points scored per game: 25.4

Points allowed per game: 21.9

Record over the last five years: 24-29 (15-20 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Three (0-3 record)

All-time record versus Russellville: 5-21

Last meeting with Russellville: Won 25-6 in 2017

West Point Warriors

Enrollment: 439.85 (41st in Class 5A)

Head coach: Don Farley (29-25 record in five seasons)

2017 record: 6-5 (4-2 in Class 5A, Region 6)

Playoffs: Lost 41-30 to Brooks in round one

Points scored per game: 28.3

Points allowed per game: 25.7

Record over the last five years: 29-25 (18-15 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Four (0-4 record)

All-time record versus Russellville: 0-6

Last meeting with Russellville: Lost 27-7 in 2015

Corner Yellow Jackets

Enrollment: 407.15 (50th in Class 5A)

Head coach: Zac Willis (28-35 record in six seasons)

2017 record: 5-6 (3-3 in Class 5A, Region 6)

Playoffs: Lost 44-0 to Mae Jemison in round one

Points scored per game: 20.3

Points allowed per game: 21.8

Record over the last five years: 21-31 (10-23 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Two (0-2 record)

All-time record versus Russellville: Never met

Hamilton Aggies

Enrollment: 393.2 (56th in Class 5A)

Head coach: Rod Stidham (101-50 record in 13 seasons)

2017 record: 3-7 (2-4 in Class 4A, Region 6)

Playoffs: DNQ

Points scored per game: 22.6

Points allowed per game: 26.9

Record over the last five years: 30-26 (17-14 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Three (3-3 record, one quarterfinal appearance)

All-time record versus Russellville: 16-25 (with 4 ties)

Last meeting with Russellville: Lost 35-14 in 1995

Dora Bulldogs

Enrollment: 377.95 (61st—smallest—in Class 5A)

Head coach: Bart Lockhart (9-3 record in one season)

2017 record: 9-3 (4-2 in Class 4A, Region 6)

Playoffs: Defeated Deshler 29-20 in round one, lost 31-24 to Saks in round two

Points scored per game: 32.0

Points allowed per game: 15.9

Record over the last five years: 23-31 (14-19 in region play)

Playoff trips over the last five years: Three (1-3 record)

All-time record versus Russellville: 0-1

Last meeting with Russellville: Lost 40-8 in 1987

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