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November 14, 2013

REGION II-3A BI-DISTRICT PLAYOFFS: Battling the Bulldogs

AHS set to face Chapel Hill in opening round

Athens — If there’s been one team that has been a thorn in the side of the Athens Hornets over the past decade — including during their record-setting run of the past five years — it’s the Chapel Hill Bulldogs.

In 2010, the Hornets were zeroing in on a district title for the first time under head coach Paul Essary. Instead, Chapel Hill walked away with a three-point victory in the regular-season finale and the trophy in an otherwise stellar campaign for the Hornets — one that saw them set a school record for wins in a season (11) and advance to a regional final.

The next year, the Bulldogs delivered the knockout blow to the Hornets’ season in a game Athens needed to win to have a chance at the playoffs. In fact, the Bulldogs are on an eight-game winning streak against the Hornets, who will try to get a little revenge Friday night in a Region II-3A Division I bi-district playoff matchup at Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium in Tyler. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

The game will mark the ninth time the teams have clashed since 2000, and the fourth time during Essary’s five-year tenure. To say he knows this week’s opponent well is an understatement.

“We know they’re an outstanding football team. Coach (Thomas) Sitton does an outstanding job with those guys over there, and we’re going to have to be ready to play,” said Essary, whose team buzzed in at No. 16 in the final Class 3A Associated Press High School Football Poll. “It’s exciting every time we meet up with Chapel Hill. It’s always a heck of a game.”

Despite a 10-0 record — another first in school history — the Harris Ratings System published weekly by the Athens Review has installed Chapel Hill (6-4) as a six-point favorite to beat Athens. The respect likely comes from the Bulldogs’ four losses — to Class 4A Whitehouse (42-34) and 3A powerhouses Carthage (52-22), Gilmer (56-28) and Kilgore (42-25). Each of those four teams — all playoff qualifiers who were in the top 10 in their respective state polls when they played Chapel Hill — finished the regular season with a combined record of 37-2.

Essary knows his team has a formidable task ahead. But on the other hand, he said he feels like he’s bringing a pretty good ball club into Rose Stadium, too.

“We’ve got to play our best Friday night, but hey, we’re 10-0 for a reason,” he said. “We’ve got a good football team — and two very good football teams are going to go at it.”

The Hornets have made their money playing physical, smashmouth football on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The offense is led by sophomore fullback Logan Fuller, who is the new school record-holder for most rushing yards in a season (1,540) and total touchdowns (25) and junior tailback Devin Hall, whose 252-yard performance in last week’s 56-13 win over rival Brownsboro gave him 1,180 yards for the season to go along with 13 trips to the end zone. Throughout the season, Essary has complimented his backs but heaped praise on a hefty, experienced offensive line led by seniors Jared Bailey, Raul Campa, Juan Guzman and tight end Nic Fincher.

The defense has been plenty nasty, too, led by senior linebackers Chris Jefferson, K.J. Cumby and Adam Stallings and junior Tim Tanner. That crew, along with sophomore Travon Fuller — who has a team-leading seven interceptions — at one point this season allowed just one touchdown over a three-week span. They’ll have their hands full with the speedy Bulldogs.

“They’re very athletic,” Essary said. “If they break one, they’re plenty fast enough to get into the end zone.”

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