St. Luke’s has changed classifications.
Will either make a difference when the Wildcats host the Bulldogs in the AL.com Coastal Alabama Game of the Week on Friday night at West Mobile Park?
The answer to that question may be a key in the critical Class 2A, Region 1 opener for both teams.
“We are about to find out real quick if this is where we belong or not,” said St. Luke’s coach John Beverly, whose team has made the jump from Class 1A to 2A this season. “I think we have prepared very well. The kids understand what is at stake and what we are trying to do and achieve.
“What we did in Class 1A was great, but we are trying to make that push in 2A and compete for this region title. Sweet Water should be a great measuring stick for us. They are a terrific program.”
St. Luke’s went 17-7 each of the past two years in Class 1A and won a playoff game.
It was a great step for a young program.
Sweet Water, however, provides a huge historical hurdle. The Bulldogs have won five state titles and 131 games in the last 12 years. Though all of the titles came in Class 1A, Sweet Water went 21-7 the last two years in Class 2A and reached the state semifinals both seasons.
Longtime coach Stacy Luker retired from Alabama public schools in the off-season, and the Bulldogs promoted veteran Luker assistant Pat Thompson to be the school’s head coach. Sweet Water opened the season with a 24-6 loss at Class 4A Thomasville on Aug. 22.
“I hope we learned a lot from that game,” Thompson told AL.com this week. “I hope we learned that we need to get Sweet Water better. We weren’t good on the edges defensively, though we were better in the second half. I thought we blew a lot of assignments. We’ve had a week off to work on that, and I think we will be better this week.”
Thompson, the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator for the past seven seasons, hasn’t changed much in Sweet Water’s traditional schemes this year. The Bulldogs still run the Wing-T on offense, and that will be a key to Friday’s game.
“We want to be able to control the ball and keep it out of their playmakers hands the best we can,” Thompson said. “I think the game will be won up front – our offensive line vs. their defensive line and vice-versa. I don’t think there will be a lot of secrets about what either of us want to do.”
Sweet Water lost both of its key backs to graduation, including Jacksonville State signee Jakoby Aldridge. Sophomore Eric Jenkins and fullback Keldric Green are the key players in the backfield in 2014.
“They are fast,” Beverly said of Sweet Water’s team. “They are very athletic. Defensively, we need to try to create pressure to stop that Wing-T attack before it gets going. It’s hard to stop once they are in a rhythm.”
St. Luke’s will counter with versatile senior quarterbackLuke Phillips, who accounted for four touchdown passes in the Wildcats’ opening win over McIntosh on Aug. 22. Tight end John David Favors is a key weapon for Phillips.
“Luke is an outstanding kid,” Beverly said. “He understands life on and off the field. His football IQ is through the roof. It is great to have a kid that smart at quarterback. He is also just real athletic. He presents so much for a defense to have to figure out. What we are doing fits him to a tee.”
SWEET WATER (0-1) AT ST. LUKE’S (1-0)
The Setup: The first real test in Class 2A for St. Luke’s, which moved up from 1A this season after making the playoffs in back-to-back years. This is the first game of a critical stretch for the Wildcats, who travel to two-time 2A runner-up Washington County on Sept. 12 before returning home to host perennial power Leroy on Sept. 19. St. Luke’s is 0-2 against Sweet Water. The Wildcats lost the last meeting 38-6 in 2011 before the Bulldogs moved up to Class 2A. St. Luke’s defeated McIntosh in its opener 35-6 on Aug. 22. … Sweet Water will be playing just its second game under new coach Pat Thompson, the team’s former defensive coordinator. He replaced longtime coach Stacy Luker in the off-season after Luker retired from Alabama public schools and took a job in Mississippi. The Bulldogs lost their opener 24-6 at Class 4A Thomasville on Aug. 22. … Both teams had last Friday off to correct any mistakes from their Week 1 games.
How Sweet Water will win: Despite the coaching change, Sweet Water is still Sweet Water. The Bulldogs haven’t changed from their traditional Wing-T attack. They will win if their ground attack gets churning and they control the clock. Thompson said the team through 13 passes in the loss at Thomasville, sending some fans into a panic. The game plan is still to run and pass as little as possible. However, balance is still a key. “We want to be able to control the ball and keep it out of their playmakers hands the best we can,” Thompson said. That could mean a heavy dose of sophomore running back Eric Jenkins (5-7, 170). The Bulldogs have been having to cope without fullback Xavier McIntosh, who has been out following foot surgery this summer. Senior Keldric Green has stepped into McIntosh’s role.
How St. Luke’s will win: First, don’t be overwhelmed by the matchup. Sweet Water’s tradition has probably won some games before the kickoff. “We are going to find out real quick if we belong or not,” Wildcats coach John Beverly said. Second, get key stops on defense. If the Wing-T is working for Sweet Water, possessions will be at a minimum. The Wildcats gave up only 24 yards of offense in the win over McIntosh. “We did a great job of flying to the football, and I thought we read our keys to a tee,” Beverly said. The Wildcats need another strong performance on that side of the ball this week.
Keep an eye on St. Luke’s QB Luke Phillips: The versatile senior is a threat on the ground and through the air. In Week 1, he ran for 97 yards and two touchdowns and also threw two TD passes to tight end John David Favors. He didn’t pass a lot – just nine times – but he connected on five for 125 yards. He also scored on runs of 14 and 54 yards. “The quarterback is an unbelievable player,” Thompson said of Phillips. “He can run. He can throw also. I saw him make a 60-yard throw across his body against McIntosh. It was unbelievable.”
Can’t-miss matchup: St. Luke’s offensive line (featuring Matthew Holland andHarrison Downing) vs. Sweet Water’s defensive line (featuring Deshon Kilpatrick). Coaches normally say games are won up front. This one is no different. Beverly has talked in the pre-season about how St. Luke’s has changed its workout regimen to prepare to play in a high classification. This is clearly Test No. 1. The Wildcats’ offensive line has to give Phillips time to work and room to run. “We are going to ride those guys in the trenches,” Beverly said. “That doesn’t change whether we are playing in Class 1A or 2A or anywhere else.” Two keys will be finding Kilpatrick and junior linebacker DeAmonte Green. “I don’t think there will be a whole lot of secrets about what either one of us want to do,” Thompson said. “I know they will try to establish the run, and we will do the same thing. Something has to give.”