Once Tate (7-1, 2-0 in District 1-6A) knocked off Escambia in Week 8, and Pine Forest (6-2, 2-0) bested Washington, all District 1-6A attention was shifted to Friday night’s game between Tate and Pine Forest.
The game will decide a district champion, locking up a home game in the first round of the playoffs for the victor.
The similarities between the teams pile up, as both the Aggies and the Eagles bring athleticism, experience and cohesion to the table.
Tate and Pine Forest both suffered losses to Niceville, and both teams competed in one-possession games with Choctaw (Tate won 35-28, Pine Forest lost 31-28).
Looking at the quarterback position, the similarities continue.
The match up will feature two of the area’s top dual-threat QBs — Tate’s Sawyer Smith (193.8 passing yards per game, 27.8 rushing yards per game, Troy University commit) and Xavier Saulsberry (149 passing yards per game, 126.9 rushing yards per game) of Pine Forest.
“Both guys (Smith and Saulsberry) are solid,” Tate coach Jay Lindsey said. “Sawyer (Smith) is a three-year starter for us, and is the leader of our football team.
“Saulsberry is a physical kid who can throw the football. He runs the ball extremely well and is hard to bring down. It’s one of those match ups where you’ve got good QBs on both sides of the field.”
While Saulsberry leads the Eagles in rushing and passing, he is certainly not Pine Forest’s only playmaker.
The Eagles possess one of the area’s top receivers, Jacob Copeland (25 receptions, 515 yards, 4 TDs) and a dangerous two-headed backfield (Jaden Gardner 83 carries, 905 yards, 8 TDs; Ladarius Wiggins 68 carries, 535 yards, 6 TDs).
“Defensively, the key word is contain,” Lindsey said. “We can’t let them break loose. It’s about team tackling, we need more than one guy on the football. Our defense has been good at doing that all year. They play very well as a unit.”
And while Pine Forest totes a handful of offensive weapons, Saulsberry and the Eagles expect Tate to do the same.
“I expect Tate to come at us hard,” Saulsberry said. “Hats off to them boys, they’ve been working hard this year. Come Friday night we’re gonna see who wants it the most.”
And though Saulsberry has stats worthy of making him the big man on campus, the quarterback doesn’t see things that way.
“It’s a good feeling to know I can run and throw the football, but I don’t think about that during the game,” Saulsberry said. “When I run, it’s because of my o-line. And when I complete passes, it’s because of our receivers.
“We’re excited for this week. We’ve worked hard to get where we are at right now. (To win a district championship) would be awesome, probably the most amazing feeling in the world.”
District 1-6A Championship game
Who: Pine Forest Eagles vs. Tate Aggies
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
Where Pete Gindl Stadium (Tate High).
Records: Pine Forest (6-2, 2-0); Tate (7-1, 2-0).
Skinny: The last two previous meetings between teams went into overtime — Week 5 of last season and this year’s spring game.