Patriots begin defense of back-to-back state titles
The past two seasons have ended the same way for the Pike Liberal Arts Patriots.
Now, the team is just three wins away from making it a third-straight time holding up the AISA state championship trophy.
After falling to Fort Dale at home on Oct. 8, the Patriots have put together three-straight wins to improve to 8-2 overall.
One of those wins came against its first round opponent.
On Oct. 1, PLAS traveled to Prattville Christian to take on the Panthers, who at the time were undefeated.
That would not be the case when the Patriots left Prattville later that night, as the team from Troy returned with a 27-7 victory.
That win snapped the Panthers’ longest winning streak in the program’s history at five games and PLAS head coach Steven Kilcrease is hoping for the same result this time around.
“They have gotten some of their really good players back form injury that have made a real difference (after we played them),” Kilcrease said.
“They are much improved because of it. Prattville Christian was one of those teams we talked about hoping to not see in the playoffs, but we are, so we have to make the most of it and it starts with a good week of preparation.”
The Panthers have several players on offense that can create problems for the Patriot defense.
At the forefront is running back J.J. Hudson.
The 6-foot-2-inch running back rushed for 1,072 yards this past season with 12 touchdowns on just 133 carries.
The senior also caught 27 passes for 518 yards and five touchdowns.
To compliment Hudson, PCA has quarterback Jordan Peak and Michael Gregory, both of whom did not play against the Patriots in the first meeting.
Peak finished with 488 passing yards and five touchdowns, while Gregory rushed for 716 yards and six touchdowns.
“Defensively, we are going to have to do things differently then we did before,” Kilcrease said. “It will be a whole new dimension because of the players they have coming back.
“J.J. is a great player, but they have three of four guys who can take it down the field in just one play. Their offense really is going to stretch our defense thin.”
This will be just the second time the Panthers have advanced to the postseason, with the only other time taking place last season.
PCA did however finish this season with a school record nine wins.
But while the Panthers may have some of their best play makers healthy, so do the Patriots. Returning to the starting lineup is running backs Nick McLaughlin and Taylor Stevens.
Stevens missed the final two regular season games while McLaughlin missed the finale.
“Everyone is back, and that feels pretty good,” Kilcrease said with a smile.
“But what was really impressive was watching the kind of job both Kyle (Boswell) and Taytom (Barnes) did for us the past two weeks. Both guys really stepped up when we needed them to.”
As far as how PLAS has been treating the playoff week, Kilcrease said it was business as usual.
“A lot of the guys here have been through this kind of preparation before, they have playoff experience, and that is helping out a lot, especially with the younger guys. But we are trying to keep it as normal as possible.
“Obviously we are making the proper adjustments here and there, but what I have seen so far is a real focus from the players. It’s been a fun atmosphere around here. The kids have a lot of energy, which is good to see,” the coach said.
The aforementioned experience talked about is one that he helps prove to be useful against a program that has very little experience playing in the postseason.
“The guys know this is going to be a tough matchup,” Kilcrease said. “All of us are expecting a much different game this time around.
“But I think experience goes a long way, especially in the playoffs. When you get to this level, its do or die. They know that and we know that. I was telling someone earlier this week, one of the hardest things to do is beat a team twice in one season, but that is what we are going to try and do. We are expecting a dogfight up there and it should be an exciting game,” the coach added.