UMS-Wright traveled to Thomasville in week two of the regular season and suffered their only region loss 42-37. Their second loss of the season came at the hands of undefeated 6A Fairhope (11-0) in week five. Since then they have reeled off six straight wins.
Jackson (10-1) met UMS-Wright on the road and lost to them 51-24 in week six. Meanwhile, Thomasville (10-1) was still undefeated in week nine of the regular season when they traveled to face Jackson and lost that decision 39-20.
Through the magic that is the AHSAA tiebreaker, UMS-Wright became the top seed from the region, Jackson the second, and one-loss Thomasville hit the road in the first round of the playoffs as the third seed from the region.
UMS-Wright put forth a powerful performance in the first round of the playoffs with a 52-7 win over St. James. Thomasville defeated a very good Alabama Christian 49-14. Jackson defeated Ashford 42-14.
UMS-Wright will face Thomasville this week, and the winner of the game will face the winner of the Jackson - Opp (7-4) game next week. That game is also played tonight.
UMS-Wright faced a similar scenario last year when they faced a rematch with a region team who had defeated them during the regular season, Jackson. They took a 39-14 regular season loss and turned it into a 33-0 playoff win and a 4A state championship. Can they do it again?
"They are similar," Head Coach Terry Curtis agreed. "We got beat in the regular season, by both. Very few times in football do you get a second chance at somebody, but for the second year in a row we do get a second chance. The flipside of that is you better watch what you ask for because sometimes you get it."
"Thomasville is a very good physical football team, and we are going to have to be on top of our game. But we are excited to be playing them. This should probably be a later game if the playoffs were set up differently, but it's not. So we'll take them one at a time. I'm sure it's going to be a great football game."
Last time the two met, big plays were the theme of the night with Jackson raking up 530 yards of total offense. The winning score came with less than three minutes remaining on a 40-yard run.
"I think we are a lot better defensively than we were when we played them before, but after watching them on film, they are a lot better on offense than they were before," Curtis said.
"It's just going to be interesting to see. We have gotten better at avoiding the big play, but Thomasville has always been a big play team. You know you are not going to stop them completely in that power Wing-T offense they run, but you have to slow them down. You have to make them take a bunch of plays, and you can't let them have 70-80 yard runs and expect to beat them. It's hard to beat anybody when you give them big runs."
There is one play from the early season loss that really sticks in Coach Curtis' craw.
"We give up an 86-yard touchdown with 15 seconds to go in the first half. They are trying to run out the clock, and we let them go 86-yards with it. You hope at this time of year you don't give up those kinds of plays. They didn't do anything fancy or throw a long pass or anything. They were just trying to run out the clock and get in and re-group, and we let them tie the game up."
We asked Coach Curtis if it is a confidence booster that those lessons are learned early in the season.
"Exactly," he said. "After 2-3 games we made some changes and moved some people around."
"The key right now is our focus and our preparation is a lot better than it was at that time. It has taken this team a while to get used to that, so I feel good about them. We're playing pretty good right now, like you want to be. Hopefully it will continue."
UMS-Wright's offense is highlighted by their brilliant junior running back Chris Dukes (5-7, 185). Dukes has rushed for 2,091 yards on 254 carries (8.2 yards per carry) and scored 30 touchdowns. He also has a touchdown reception.
"Chris is having another great year," Curtis said. "He's over 2,000 yards in 11 games, which is pretty impressive. The thing about Chris is the ones that we have beaten easily he hasn't played a whole lot. Most of his yards have come against the good teams. That is just the kind of runner he is. He is a tough hard-nosed guy that gets better as the game goes on."
When asked about Dukes' college recruitment Curtis is direct, "They are all over him."
Dukes rushed for 175 yards against 6A McGill-Toolen in the opening game of the season. He rushed for 135 yards against Thomasville, 227 yards againt 6A Fairhope, and 150 yards against Jackson. The junior has six games with more than 200 yards including a game against Clarke County where he rushed for 300 yards on 25 carries.
Dukes rushed for 1,916 yards in 2008 while sitting out a couple of games with an injury.
The Bulldogs' senior quarterback Bragg Foshee (6-1, 180) has been hampered this season by injury, but has still managed to throw for 864 yards.
"Bragg had a mild separated shoulder for about four-five weeks," Curtis said. "He seems to be getting back to full speed. He didn't miss a game, but he had a hard time putting a lot of velocity on the ball, and I can see his arm getting back to full strength as the playoffs go on. So that's good. Our offensive line is back together, and they are playing really well right now too."
The Bulldogs were the benefactors of four turnovers last week by St. James, two interceptions and two fumbles.
"Our defense has gotten a lot better," Curtis advised. "Jay Prosch, our inside linebacker, made All-State last year as an offensive right tackle, so it's taken him a while. You don't move to linebacker and all of a sudden you are a natural at it. It takes a lot of time and work, and we have watched him improve."
"Jay is our leading tackler by far with 167 tackles. He's a man in there at 6-0, 240 pounds. He benches 440 and is really getting better as the season goes on.
"He and Nick Laskay (5-9, 190) have done a good job. Our safety, Stephen Zalopany (5-9, 160) had an interception last week along with Patrick Garstecki (6-0, 150). Those guys have been getting better and better, and hopefully they are peaking at the right time."
Speaking of peaking at the right time, we asked Coach Curtis what is it about UMS-Wright when their backs are against the wall that is when they play lights-out.
"It always seems and people are always saying 'well here they come again' and I don't know what it is. We always seem to be playing our best football at the end, and it seems like we are doing that again," Curtis answered.
"I wish knew because I could make a lot of money if I could answer that question. I don't know if it is the way we prepare in the off-season, the way we do our weight program. There is a lot that goes into it."
"I've told people we don't do a whole lot early in the summer. We give our kids a month or so off. I've had other teams at other schools where you get to this point, and they were just tired and worn down. Our kids seem to get rejuvenated. Now granted I'm sure the state championships and being there and knowing what it's like helps with that."
"We just stay on a regular routine and take one game at a time whether we're playing our big rival St. Paul's or we're playing Andalusia. We are on an even-keel because we are kind of looking ahead to what all we've got left to do. They just never get too high, and they never get too low. We don't put any more pressure on one game than we do another one. I really don't know what the answer is, but it's a good feeling."
Kickoff 7:00 PM Friday at Cooper Stadium.