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Friendship faces final step to BlueCross Bowl
Nov 27, 2006 12:00 am
Following his personal tradition – which is shared by many football coaches, players and fans – John McNeal will spend Thanksgiving Friday night at a state semifinal playoff game.
Unlike past years, McNeal won't be standing behind the fence or sitting in the stands. He'll be in front of the fence and straddling the sideline in the team box as his Friendship Christian Commanders try to take that final step to the BlueCross Bowl.
"The last two Thanksgivings, we've still been licking wounds from losing the Friday before and then trying to decide where you're going to watch a game the Friday after Thanksgiving," said McNeal, whose 13-0 Commanders will host 12-1 Hampton at 7 p.m. tonight at Pirtle Field. "Coaches who have been in this situation a lot have said if they're not practicing on Thanksgiving, it's kind of a sad day."
The two teams are 48 minutes from a trip to next Friday's BlueCross Bowl at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro. But only one can go to the state finals where it will meet tonight's Mt. Pleasant-Jackson Christian winner.
"It's exciting but it's also kind of nerve-wracking just knowing you do have that opportunity," McNeal said. "One game, four quarters. It's an opportunity there to do what you really started working to do in the summer and talk about and listen to everybody else talk about.
"It's kind of nerve-wracking more than anything."
It's Friendship's first experience in the state's final four. Hampton reached this round last year only to lose at its upper East Tennessee home to Trousdale County.
"They're used to being here," McNeal said. "The only difference is they'll have to make the travel."
McNeal used one word to describe the Bulldogs – big.
"They got a couple of kids, one reads 6-6, 330," McNeal said about Hampton's linemen. "One's 6-4, 290. That's their two biggest ones. They're good sized outside of that, but those are two huge kids."
Hampton prefers to run the ball out of the I and power-I behind senior running back Adam Townsend (1,079 yards) and junior Dustin Jaynes (706). But junior quarterback Michael Lunsford has thrown for 1,411 yards, including 823 to senior wideout Jonathan Lyons, who had three touchdown catches in a 42-7 second-round win over Harriman two weeks ago.
"They don't throw it a lot, but when they do, they've been pretty good at it," McNeal said. "But mostly a running team. They'll just try to pound it."
Linebackers Jarred Irick and D.J. Oliver have 81 and 79 tackles, respectively, in Hampton's 5-3 defense.
Fourteen games out of 15 weeks into the season, the Commanders are banged up with freshman running back John Markham joining lineman Aaron Nations on the disabled list after tearing a hamstring last week. Others are hurt but will play, even if they aren't practicing.
"We've got some banged up, still nursing some (injuries)," McNeal said. "But they got to play. And we're pretty fortunate to be where we are right now as far as injuries."
Linebacker Wade Mitchell was hobbled by cramps in last week's win over Tennessee Temple. He watched practice at least one day this week but will play.
"Wade's (situation) was not practicing all week, and being in a brace is different too, something you're not used to," McNeal said, noting it's more important for the senior Mr. Football Lineman finalist to be healthy for the game than to practice. "He knows what to do. He's a senior. He's done it for the last few years.
"I don't think (practicing) is an issue. It's just a matter of making sure he's healthy Friday night."
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.