For those wondering if the Arab football team can still make the playoffs this season, head coach Lee Ozmint has a message for you, one he’s already relayed to his players.
“This is the first round of the playoffs for us,” Ozmint said Monday, referring the Knights’ Class 6A, Region 7 game at Springville on Friday night. “We control our own destiny.”
However, it’s apparently third place in the region or bust for the Knights, currently 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the region. An Arab loss on Friday could help throw the bottom of the standings into some kind of crazy tiebreaker scenario involving multiple teams where head-to-head matchups wash out.
But win against Springville and Arab is in, with a 3-3 region record.
In this weirdest of all seasons, Southside-Gadsden has finished region play with a 3-3 record after winning at Scottsboro 38-14 last week, when Arab was idle. But the Knights hold the tiebreaker against the Panthers, having won head-to-head against them, 28-27, the fifth game of the season.
That means, if Arab wins, Arab is the No. 3 seed and Southside is No. 4. No other teams – besides the two leaders – can best 3-3.
Springville (3-5, 1-4), on the other hand, must defeat Arab to have a chance at the No. 4 seed. A Springville win would make the Tigers and Arab both 2-4 but Springville would get the nod there with its head-to-head win over the Knights.
But it’s not that simple. Springville also would need for Scottsboro to win a Pell City this week, otherwise Pell City potentially slips into the No. 4 slot, also with a 2-4 record. The Panthers, after two weeks of COVID-19 misery, came back and defeated Springville 34-20 on Oct. 9.
Springville has its own tiebreaker win against Scottsboro, should the Wildcats upset Pell City. Arab holds a tiebreaker edge over Pell City. But this all assumes head-to-head matchups end up mattering with multiple 2-4 teams vying for one playoff spot.
Totally on the other end of the spectrum, Class 6A No. 1 Oxford and Fort Payne, both 5-0 in region play, play for the No. 1 seed Friday at Fort Payne.
The stakes are comparably high for Arab and Springville. And the Knights seem to have a new bounce in their step after playing Oxford very competitively two weeks ago and then taking the last weekend off.
The Knights are as healthy as they’ve been all season, Ozmint said, and perhaps playing as well as they have all season.
Ozmint takes great pains to avoid calling the Oxford performance a moral victory, but he makes no bones about the fact Arab battled the more talented Yellow Jackets deep into the game, leaving him highly encouraged.
“Our kids competed for four quarters,” he said. “That’s probably just the third time all season Oxford played its starters for four quarters.”
The other two times were against Class 7A No. 1 Thompson and Class 5A No. 1 Pleasant Grove.
“You’re never satisfied with a loss and Oxford beat us. They scored 42 and we scored 14,” he said. “But I was pleased with how we fought. I wanted them to play with grit and toughness and in the face of that good of a team, I was pleased with how we fought.
“We didn’t beat ourselves. We didn’t fold. We didn’t give up.
“What they got, they earned.”
Ozmint is confident his players learned something against Oxford, mainly what kind of effort it takes to compete in Class 6A. There’s no time for any kind of self-satisfaction after playing a “good game” against a good team.
“Our players should be proud of the way they played against Oxford,” Ozmint said.
But the Knights must continue to build on what has put them in a position to make the playoffs, and that’s a strong running game centered around senior Mathew Turnage, a rapidly improving young quarterback in sophmore Aidan Cox and a suprisingly stout defense.
Arab is tied with Oxford for first in the region in scoring defense at 152 points, or 19.0 points allowed per game. That includes giving up 42 to Oxford but it also includes a 1-0 forfeit win against Pell City.
The big difference between the two teams – and frankly the big difference between Oxford and the rest of the teams in Region 7 – is that Arab has scored 117 points while the Yellow Jackets have tallied a whopping 374, just over 45 a game.
“I firmly believe (Oxford) will be raising the blue map (trophy) at the end of the season,” Ozmint said.
It would be the fifth such trophy to hang in the end zone at the Yellow Jackets’ Lamar Field.
Still, Arab is fighting this week, next week at home against Boaz and hopefully in a first-round playoff game, for far more than simple relevance. Arab’s two-year trajectory under Ozmint is clearly going up, even though the Knights surprisingly were moved up a class to 6A for this year and next.
It’s a reality Arab’s players and coaches have accepted but it’s still a tough climb. However, Ozmint believes the baby steps the program has been taking this season and last are taking the team in the direction of being a yearly contender for the state playoffs. And part of that process is dealing with the breaks that fall your way or fall against you.
Arab scored a huge win in its opener against 7A Albertville that looks much less impresive now. But the worst part was that No. 2 quarterback Alex Alcala was lost due to injury after leading the team to the win.
Alcala can play with the injury but he can’t play QB. And he himself replaced intended No. 1 QB James Ed Johnson, who was injured and lost for most of the season on the first day of practice with pads (he’s starting to practice again).
That meant sophomore Aidan Cox was forced into action, and the offense struggled at first, losing to Guntersville 35-9, Fort Payne 28-7 and then to Scottsboro 7-3. The Wildcats (2-6) have won just once since, against 4A North Jackson.
All the while, Cox was showing major improvement from week to week. And it all came together for the Knights’ offense in the win over Southside. That was the week, Ozmint said, that Turnage decided it was time to be Turnage.
“He woke up against Southside,” Ozmint said. “He was averaging about a yard or two per carry until then. But he is one heckuva football player. We kind of go as Mathew Turnage goes.
“It’s no secret we’re built around him. And he’s got over 1,000 yards in week nine.”
Turnage officially has 1,015 yards on 160 carries. His re-emergence as a dominant force took some pressure off Cox, whose season stats are starting to look impressive.
He’s now 68-of-115 passsing for 773 yards and five touchdowns. He’s also run 18 times for 111 yards and three TDs.
“He’s so far ahead of where he was at the beginning of the season and a lot of it is because the running game has caught fire,” Ozmint said. “Aidan has matured as much as any player I’ve ever coached in such a short time.”
Offensive coordinator Michael Darden is given a lot of credit for Cox’s development. Darden directs the credit back to the player.
“Aidan is a great competitor and tough as nails,” Darden said. “He is extremely coachable and has improved each day in practice and that has started to show on Friday nights.
“He has definitely improved over the last few weeks.”
Arab caught a break when Pell City had to forfeit, a win that evened Arab’s region record at 2-2 and set up this stretch run.
Arab’s defensive improvement can be attributed to players stepping up and defensive coaches, led by coordinator Buddy Pell, getting players in the right position, both from an overall standpoint and from play to play.
Both coaches and players will have another tall task Friday night. The Knights will have to deal with a run-pass threat at quarterback in 6-foot-1, 215-pound Pearson Baldwin and a supremely talented wide receiver in 6-2, 200-pound senior Gage Frederick.
“They’ve got a quarterback who can run the football and he can also throw it,” Ozmint said. “He’s one of the best throwers we’ve faced this season and he can also run it.
“They’re just a very talented football team in general.”
The Knights got healthy with some extra time off last week before practicing Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday heading into game week.