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Saturday Morning Quarterback
Nov 27, 2006 12:00 am
A long time ago (well, back in August), John McNeal said the line would determine how far Friendship Christian went this season.
Some 18 weeks later, the Commanders are still going – all the way to Murfreesboro.
McNeal had three sprinters – Jeremy Rickaway, John Markham and Bryant Alsup – he could put in the backfield. He had a returning strong-arm quarterback (Jon Miller) and a bushel of receivers – John Doak, Adam Stephens, Garrett McKnight and Michael Teeter – to throw to.
But with a couple of exceptions, the line (which saw Trey Walker, Matt Barnes, Jonathan Dunn, Matt McCulloch and G.L. Waynick start last night's semifinal against Hampton) was largely untested. It's safe to say it's passed the test with green colors.
The Commanders have won in many different ways. They've blown out the teams they should blow out, and have often done likewise to those you might have thought would put up a stronger fight.
They've beaten a state-championship team twice in the last two seasons. Davidson Academy has lost three times in winning back-to-back Division II-A titles in 2005 and '06. Two of those came to Friendship.
The Commanders have used the big play of a long run or pass to build a lead and an opportunistic defense to keep the opposition at bay when the heat was on late (see Gordonsville and Trousdale County).
The ultimate test was probably the second-round playoff game against Gordonsville. Friendship trailed the entire game, including by two scores entering the fourth quarter, until taking the lead for the first time with less than 20 seconds to play. The Commanders had trailed against Davidson for much of that game, but not until the end and not with the season at stake.
With the above-mentioned skill players, Friendship has been full of home-run hitters throughout the season. The Commanders can score from their own 20 as easily as from the other team's 20.
I had questions about whether they could put together a lengthy 10-play drive. Those were answered against Gordonsville when Miller handed off to Markham and Rickaway repeatedly in the fourth quarter and completed clutch passes to keep those two drives going.
That may have one of the best games for both Rickaway and Miller, even if their stats didn't necessarily show it. Rickaway was willing to take what the line could give him and he did break free for an 80-yard touchdown run. But he didn't try to do that on every play. Miller, when his receivers were covered, didn't try to rifle the ball through the defensive backs to his guy but rather smartly threw it over everybody for an incomplete pass.
The biggest stat against Gordonsville? Only one turnover, and it came on the final play of the first half deep in Tiger territory.
As for the defense, Mr. Football Lineman finalist Wade Mitchell is the centerpiece at middle linebacker. But he's had help from his supporting cast which include outside 'backers Jordan Carman and Cole Patton. Ends Teeter and Taylor Ferraro knife into opposing backfields with regularity. One of the common sights of the season is Waynick, who can bench press a Mack truck, waddling off the field following a series and taking his helmet off, allowing the steam to escape his mohawk haircut.
And a senior-laden secondary – Doak, Stephens, Alsup and Brent Boyd – played one of the great third quarters last week against Tennessee Temple with three interceptions, including two by Stephens, as the Commanders came away with seven takeaways from a team which was also undefeated coming in.
And special teams have indeed been special at times. While Beau Baker has been reliable on kickoffs and extra points, Mitchell is one of the top punters around. and his his 55-yard boot in the Gordonsville playoff game turned that contest around, backing the Tigers to their 3. That allowed Doak to stand at the Gordonsville 40 to receive the Tigers' punt, which he returned to inside the 20 to set up the first rallying touchdown.
Friendship can win with speed on both sides of the ball, hard-hitting defense and opportunistic special teams. The Commanders can attack by land, air, and even (at least on Pirtle Field's wet northeast corner where an underground spring has made footing as stable as the surface of a waterbed) water, or at least mud. They can win going away or coming from behind.
The line may have been a question mark at the beginning of the season. It's now an exclamation point.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at email@example.com.