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Brian Tannehill / For Tallapoosa Publishers Panther QB Payton Stephenson (3) attempts a pass against Holtville Friday night.

The Alabama Sports Writers Association does not give away any trophies to teams who reach the pinnacle of their classification’s rankings but the No. 1 spot is usually not just given away. Teams fight to earn that ranking and that is definitely the case for Class 5A No. 1 Clay Central. The Volunteers are the two-time defending state champions and they have started this season 3-0.

 

Now, Elmore County is hoping to put an end to that perfect record as the Panthers take on the underdog role in a trip to Lineville.

“We’re going to prepare to compete and win the football game,” ECHS coach Jordan Cantrell said. “There’s no hidden fact that they are No. 1 and there is a reason why. Our players live to compete at this level. We know it’s going to be a challenge but our guys need to embrace that.”

The Panthers (1-2, 0-1 5A Region 4) have defeated a No. 1 team before but it has not happened since 1986 and the program is just 1-7 all time against top-ranked teams, including four losses in the 1990s to Clay County, a team coached by Clay Central’s current coach Danny Horn.

On top of having to deal with the top-ranked Vols on the other sideline, Elmore County will have to find a way to respond mentally after losing rivalry games in two consecutive weeks.

“It’s life and that’s part of football,” Cantrell said. “You just have to leave that behind you and start working on correcting those mistakes. You can’t let these linger. It’s important that we persevere in the hard times.”

Cantrell believes his team can come back with the right mentality for Friday’s game but that may not make it any easier to compete against the Volunteers. 

Clay Central (3-0, 1-0) has put together a couple of dominant performances already this year, winning its first two games by an average of 26 points. It was not until last week when a team came within one possession of the Volunteers but that was only due to two late touchdowns by Sylacauga.

“It’s going to be tough for anyone who plays these guys,” Cantrell said. “They are sound in every phase of the game. They just have really good football players and really good personnel. When you put that together with some really good coaching, that equals dominance.”

Two-year starting quarterback Boyd Ogles is back leading the Clay Central offense and he has already shown improvements, completing 65% of his passes so far this year. It helps Ogles has multiple weapons to work with on the outside and in the backfield with him.

“It’s really tough when they can score through many different avenues,” Cantrell said. “They know how to throw the football and they have multiple guys that can run. It makes it difficult to prepare for.”

Elisha McNeil is expected to get the bulk of the carries on the ground while Jameion Hunter and Jakheim McLemore will be factors in the passing game.

Elmore County is hoping to counter with a better offensive performance than it saw last week against Holtville and Cantrell believes it starts with the rushing attack.

“We just have to work on us,” Cantrell said. “We have to get better at running the football. We started off the first two games running the ball very well and threw the ball effectively. I really believe we have to establish the running game moving forward and add some wrinkles along the way.”

PREDICTION: Clay Central 35, Elmore County 14

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.