St. Pauls, however, is hoping to buck the trend and claim a share of the conference crown in the process.
If the Bulldogs (6-4, 3-1) upset the undefeated Golden Tornadoes (10-0, 4-0), the two split league bragging rights. Additionally, if Red Springs defeats West Columbus, the Red Devils get a slice of the title, as well.
“We can have a piece of it if we win it,” Bulldogs coach Trey Sasser said. “We’ve been working towards putting ourselves in a position to have a say in the final outcome of the conference.”
St. Pauls did the same last year, but was toppled 35-15 at home by the Tornadoes. This week, the championship stage is set in Fairmont.
“Our kids know what’s on the line for them. They know what’s at stake,” Fairmont coach Keith Wood said.
Not only would the Golden Tornadoes clinch the Three Rivers title outright, a win would also give Fairmont a top seed in the playoffs, granting Wood’s squad coveted home field advantage. But for all of that to come to fruition, Wood knows he has to blueprint an effective game plan against the on-the-rise Bulldogs.
Heading into the title bout, the Golden Tornadoes are especially focused on ball security — they’ve fumbled 14 times in the last two outings.
“We know we can’t turn the ball over to win a conference championship, and we can’t do that to go far in the playoffs,” Wood said.
Despite the cluster of fumbles, no team has been able to slow down the offensive juggernaut Fairmont, which is scoring a 40-point a night in league action. Fairmont touts the county’s top passer, Demetrius Washington (1,587 yards), and leading rusher, Alex Gilchrist (913 yards).
“On the positive note, even when we turn the ball over that many times we score 35 or 40 points and still win,” Wood said. “That’s a good sign … but we know we can’t (turn it over).”
If any defense were to harness Fairmont’s explosive offense, one could argue it’d be St. Pauls. The Bulldogs have held the opposition to just 18 points while scoring 98 throughout its three-game winning streak heading into Friday.
What’s been St. Pauls’ secret?
Plain old intensity.
“The defense has been playing with renewed enthusiasm after the Red Springs game,” said Sasser. The Bulldogs were trounced 57-6 by their arch rival on Sept. 30; they haven’t lost since. “We’ve just been perusing the ball a lot better and getting to the football. Preaching about playing with intensity on defense has sunk in.”
An anchor on that side of the ball has been linebacker Ladarius McQueen, who has a team-high 53 tackles along with two interceptions, including a pick-six last week against West Columbus. McQueen and his counterparts, however, have yet to see an offense as productive as Fairmont.
“They’re big and fast, they got the best of both worlds,” Sasser said. “There’s nobody undersized on the field for them at all.”
Meanwhile, Fairmont’s defense — possibly overshadowed by its high-octane offense — has quietly held league foes to an average of just 18 points. Highlighting their defense has been the defensive back play of Andrew Hill and D’Andre Johnson, who have seven picks apiece. The two will be looking to put the clamps on St. Pauls passing-punch of Jacob Locklear and Antonio Henderson, who’ve hooked up for six scores in league play.
Hill and Johnson won’t only be looking to take away the ball, but also St. Pauls’ chances at tying for the Three Rivers crown.
“Our kids don’t want to share anything,” Wood said. “They’re pretty greedy.”
Sports Editor Kaleb Roedel can be reached at (910) 272-6111 or email@example.com