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Nov 25, 2012 12:00 am
By Andy Reed
Once upon a time, John McNeal was a young coach and Duane Lowe an even younger player on Friendship Christian teams who considered five wins a successful season.
They have overseen the growth of the program to the point where winning big and winning often has come to be expected.
The pair will take Friendship Christian back to the BlueCross Bowl next Saturday following a 27-6 trouncing of visiting Boyd-Buchanan on a frigid Friday night at Pirtle Field.
The Commanders will carry a 12-1 record back to Cookeville looking to complete the defense of their Class 2A championship. Their opponent will be Adamsville, which upset last year's runner up, Dresden, 28-7 Friday night. Kickoff will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium in Cookeville.
"There were deals years and years ago we were just wanting to win ballgames," said McNeal, who first came to FCS in 1986 and took over for good in '92. "We were just wanting respect, and that's what we built on. And then we started getting in the playoffs and getting further in the playoffs. And then all of a sudden, we're thinking 'Can we get there? Can we make this reality?' In  we did and [losing] was a very disappointing thing.
"But now, winning one and getting a chance at two, it's the best feeling in the world... We worked all year to get back, and we're back. We got to work hard this week and give us an opportunity to win one this Saturday."
"The program's come a long way and there's a lot of people who have laid the groundwork for us to get to where we are," said Lowe, who graduated from FCS in 1994 and is now the Commanders' defensive coordinator. "I've seen a lot of alumni here, and I know they're proud of the school and the program, where it's come from.
"It adds a little extra pressure, but that's pressure you want."
Friendship's explosive offense left a dent in Boyd-Buchanan's defense from the get-go as sophomore Steven Hollis burst free for 42 yards on the game's first two plays. He finished with 184 yards on 17 carries.
"He's developed, he and Austin Taylor have both really developed into very good runners as sophomore," McNeal said after his Commanders churned up 250 rushing yards and 399 total. "AT is the middle linebacker, so he doesn't run the ball as much because he's in the mix defensively constantly."
Junior quarterback A.J. Long, who was playing in northeastern Pennsylvania a year ago, capped the series with a 9-yard pass to Stefan Remus up the middle for a 7-0 lead.
Long completed 9 of 14 passes for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a game-sealing 30-yarder in the seam to Cale Mitchell late in the third quarter. He also ran for a pair of 1-yard scores in the second quarter as Friendship built a 20-6 halftime lead.
But before that, the Buccaneers used a strong running game to rumble 68 yards to a 3-yard scoring run by Rance Harden. But the snap for the extra point was high and it was all holder Grant Mathis could do to chase down the ball, leaving Friendship with a 7-6 edge.
Eventually, Lowe's defense solved Boyd-Buchanan's one-dimensional offense, even overcoming a Friendship fumble at the Buccaneers' 43-yard line.
Friendship drove 68 yards to Long's 1-yard reach over the goal line for a 14-6 lead less than three minutes before halftime.
FCS got the ball back on a punt to the Commander 46 with 55 seconds left. A couple of Long completions to Hunter Watts, who had five catches for 80 yards in the first half, put the ball inside the 1 with four seconds left.
Long muscled the ball behind the offensive line and over the goal line on the final play of the first half.
"That right there might have been the biggest thing because we were looking for a field goal," McNeal said. "Once he hit him there - of course, we took a chance on that last one, on that post wheel we ran to Watts. That was a big, big play, maybe the play of the game."
During that series, Boyd-Buchanan quarterback Jim Cardwell rolled his ankle playing defense, and though he played offense throughout the second half, he could add little to his 50 rushing yards while Harden had to carry the load, finishing with 83 on 19 carries. Cardwell completed 8 of 15 passes for 58 yards, mostly to the flats, with a final-fling interception by Hollis as the Bucs, who finished with 229 total yards returned to Chattanooga with a final 12-2 record.
"Their run offense is what they live on," Lowe said. "They spread you to run it. We felt like our athletes on the perimeter were better than their athletes. So we went Cover Zero all night and put an extra linebacker in the box. They were really hurting us early with the cutback. We were overpursuing. So we made a few changes, and that gave them a few problems and stopped that cutback.
"We knew [Caldwell] was hobbling a little bit. They were able to roll him out which really hurts their passing game that much more. Their offense goes as he goes. So they had to go to more two-back stuff, which allowed us to bring an extra linebacker in and go a little more zone."
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952, ext. 17; or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org