Just eight teams remain standing in the Class A Public state playoffs. Mount Zion High School head football coach Brad Gordon is ecstatic that his team is one of them.
Tonight at 7:30, Gordon and his No. 8 Eagles will try to keep their flight through the postseason alive when they hit the road for a face-to-face confrontation with No. 1 Manchester.
Having the opportunity to take to the field during Thanksgiving break is a huge marker of success for any high school football coach and the first-year MZ head man is pumped about the milestone for his team.
"If you're practicing during Thanksgiving week, you've got a chance," Gordon said. "Anytime you're practicing on Thanksgiving, it's a sign that it's been a good year. We're excited about the opportunity to get on the bus and go to Manchester (today)."
The Eagles (9-2) enter this battle fresh off a 20-12 second-round victory over Marion County last Friday, one in which a Brendon Spradlin fumble recovery, a 56-yard Iaan "Mike-Mike" Cousin touchdown reception and a Tyriese Farley interception in the final two minutes advanced them into the state quarterfinals.
However, the win wasn't their crispest of performances offensively, something Gordon attributed to the MC defense and the team trying to get back into rhythm following a first-round bye.
"They did some good things with their defensive line where they kept moving around and caused us some issues," Gordon said. "Overall, I think that week off just kind of got us out of rhythm offensively. We had a couple of turnovers and we usually do a good job at taking caring of the ball. That's one of the things that we pride ourselves on. So this week in practice, we did some basic stuff like ball drills and things like that. We know heading into Manchester, we just have to do what we do."
There's no question that tonight's quarterfinal clash will be MZ's toughest challenge of the season when facing a Manchester team that has taken opponents to the woodshed all year long, including a 58-20 thrashing of No. 16 Washington-Wilkes last Friday.
Led by third-year head coach Evan Hochstetler, son of legendary former Bowdon head football coach Dwight Hochstetler, the Blue Devils (11-0) have limited opposing offenses to just 11.6 points per game defensively while offensively have averaged 42.3 points per contest. Most of that has to do with the dynamic backfield of running backs Deenizio Gamble and Kelvin Turner, who have combined for 2,413 yards on 8.5 yards per carry this season. There will be no surprise for Gordon and Co. when they step on the field tonight. The question is if they can stop them.
"They're physical, they're big up front and they've got two big running backs. They've got some good looking kids with a good coaching staff," Gordon said. "The fact of the matter is, there's no secret as to what they're going to do. They're going to run about four plays and run right out you. They do what they do and I don't think they're going to change, by any means, no matter who they're playing."
But having faced similar foes like Trion in Region 6-A and being cut from the same mold themselves, MZ won't be taken aback to the style of team it's about to face. It will be about going blow-for-blow with Class A public's No. 1 team.
"We had a little gut check at Trion and that was a wake-up call for us defensively. It woke us up and made us realize that we have to bring our 'A' game every Friday night," Gordon said. "When we went up to Mt. Paran Christian for the region championship game, we were about eight seconds away from beating a very physical football team. We feel like we've been challenged before up front and know what to expect when facing a team that's going to line up and run right at us. We've got to match their physicalness (tonight) and I think we'll be ready for the challenge."
An upset victory would send the Eagles to their first state seminal appearance in school history, where it would face the winner of Clinch County and Mitchell County. Considering not many people anticipated MZ making it this far, especially after losing 19 of 22 starters to graduation last year, it's ready to play the role of the ultimate spoiler.
"I remember at the beginning of the year, someone put out a survey asking what area team was going to make it the furthest this year and we weren't even included on the survey," Gordon said. "We've had a little chip on our shoulder with something to prove. Nobody believed that we would be where we are today except us, so that's how we're approaching this game (tonight). Nobody's giving us a chance, and that's fine with us. We don't mind being the underdog."
Friday night's contest will broadcast live on Great Classics 98.9 FM.