Jayson Larson/Special to the Review
The Athens Review
The Athens Hornets have a chance Friday night to accomplish one of their major goals a little earlier than usual.
A victory over the Mabank Panthers would clinch a playoff spot for the Hornets, who lead the district at 2-0 and are putting their school-record 7-0 mark on the line. If the Hornets pull off the feat, they will have qualified for the postseason in four of head coach Paul Essary’s five seasons at Athens.
Not that the Hornets needed any added motivation, but it’s also Homecoming Night at Bruce Field.
While the Panthers (2-5, 1-1) would love to spoil homecoming for the Hornets, they’ve got a much bigger reason to pull off a victory.
“We’re 2-0 and they’re 1-1,” Essary said. “If they beat us Friday night, we’re tied in the district at 2-1. Nobody’s out of it yet. They’re fighting for a playoff spot and we’re fighting for a playoff spot.”
Essary said the team’s 7-0 start has been dampened a bit lately by shaky play. Over the past two weeks, the Hornets have turned the ball over eight times — all via fumbles — and been penalized 19 times for 150 yards. The Hornets managed to win both games, but Essary knows his team will have to tighten up the mistakes to make a deep playoff run.
“(Being 7-0) is probably not as exciting as it ought to be because we haven’t played real well the last couple of weeks — and our kids know that,” Essary said. “Once we get those things fixed, the excitement is going to be back. We’re working hard on getting the little things corrected.”
Much of the spotlight this season has been on the rushing-heavy offense, with standouts such as Anthony Sanders, Logan Fuller and Devin Hall leading the way.
Likewise, the defense is loaded with noteworthy talent, led by the Hornets’ terrible triumvirate at linebacker — K.J. Cumby, Chris Jefferson and Adam Stallings.
But Essary said the performance of the defensive line has been key to the team’s success. That group, led by the district’s reigning Defensive Newcomer of the Year Chris Prox, Manuel Lugo and all-district performer Tyler Trussell, has accounted for 139 tackles. Lugo, a newcomer who transferred to Athens this year, also has two sacks.
The trio has started all seven games this season, and last year, Prox and Trussell were full-time starters, as well. All are juniors this season, so the Hornets will have their services next season.
“Our defensive line has done a really good job,” Essary said. “They’re kind of like the offensive line — they don’t get bragged on as much. Their responsibility is to keep the other team’s offensive linemen off our linebackers. So they make the play so someone else can make the tackle.”
Essary said another key cog on the front seven has been linebacker Tim Tanner, who has 41 tackles, two sacks, an interception, a fumble caused and two fumble recoveries.