In a blind draw playoff system, these things are bound to happen. Some teams’ reward for stringing together a strong season is a road trip to face yet another strong foe, while weaker teams pair off in the opening round.
Even with all that in mind, the luck of the draw did the Southside football team no favors.
For all the trouble of turning in a 6-2 regular season, the Rebels will make a trip to face Pendleton Heights at Arabian Stadium at 7 p.m. today. The Arabians boast a 7-2 record, and should the Rebels sneak past them, Southside will almost assuredly face sectional favorite Mt. Vernon.
But the Rebels seem ready for the challenge.
“We didn’t know what we were going to get because you never can tell,” Southside quarterback Timber Hatfield said. “Going on the harder side of the bracket is better. It’s going to show that you’re going to have to play harder than if you had an easier draw. So in a way, I think it’s good.”
Rebels running back McKenzee Nash added, “On the bright side, it kind of shows that we can get the better teams out the way. … We can’t really take things for granted now.”
In the sectional, Southside, Pendleton Heights, Mt. Vernon and Delta were generally considered a few steps ahead of the rest of the field, and the unbalanced halves of the bracket create a challenging road for Southside. To win the sectional, it would likely have to top the Arabians, Mt. Vernon (8-1) and perennially-powerful Delta, which has a far easier road to the sectional finals.
Longtime Southside coach Mike Paul pulled no punches when he spoke about some of the basic concerns with a blind playoff draw.
“I’ve been one of those coaches that’s always been for seeding,” said Paul, who noted the two best teams in a section or even in the state could get paired in the first round. “That’s not really fair because they lose two weeks of practice they would get. And the kids don’t get the chance to play in a sectional championship game, and that’s a big deal.”
This week, Paul’s Rebels will contend with a formidable outfit from Pendleton Heights led by coach John Broughton, who has led the team for 37 years. The Arabians run the same double-slot, run-and-shoot attack as Delta with a formidable cast of playmakers.
Paul called Arabians running back Jon Farrow (814 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns) exceptional, and the senior kicks, punts, anchors the 4-4 defense at safety and ranks fourth in school history in rushing yards. Jim Arney is the second rushing threat, and sophomore quarterback Jesse Furrow (1148 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions) has prospered under center.
Southside’s staff has actually run the same variation of the run and shoot, and while that might help on some level, Paul admitted it will be hard to stop all those playmakers.
The Rebels will counter with their spread offense, which they hope to get going early after several lackluster starts.
The attack goes through Nash and Hatfield as runners, who each have at least 761 rushing yards. Hatfield has added 1,327 passing yards, 463 to Braiden Reynolds, to give the spread a near-equal balance between running and passing production.
And that quickness in the backfield did not escape the eyes Broughton.
“They’re not a real big team, but they’re quick and they’re scrappy,” Broughton said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mike Paul. … He coaches for the right reasons, and he’s a tremendous person.”
Those two have coached against each other many times in their long careers and even shared schemes with one another.
One notable disadvantage for the Rebels will be a smaller roster that forces nine starters to play both offense and defense. The group is senior-laden, which can’t hurt going into an unfriendly environment against a strong squad.
Paul’s team is used to being on the road, with its past three games out of town, but they won’t look too far down the road that lies ahead.
“We know Pendleton Heights is favored above us,” Paul said. “We know it’s going to be a tough game for us. There’s no way we’re looking to think past them.”