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WESTOVER VS. ALBANY: Can Indians win two in a row for first time in eight years?

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Monday was "Get down from the horse day" at Albany High.

Honest, that's exactly what Albany football coach Felton Williams called it.

"We just took Monday as the get down off the horse day and get your feet back on the ground day,'' said Williams, who watched his kids pull off one of the biggest upsets of the opening week of the prep football season last Saturday when they beat Dougherty, 16-14, on a last-second field goal by Daniel Castaneda.

It was the first time in 22 years that Albany had beaten Dougherty and the first win for the Indians against anybody since 2008. The celebration after the game was a wild one. After all, that's a pretty tall horse.

Now, Albany has to dismount from all that emotion and meet Westover at 7:30 tonight at Hugh Mills Stadium in a game that promises to be just as big.

"The rivalry with Westover is huge,'' Williams said. "It's just as huge as any.''

It's even bigger this season because for the first time in years all four Albany high schools are playing each other, meaning there will be a true city champion.

"We told our kids that Albany has already won one-third of the city championship,'' Westover coach Octavia Jones said. "Now we have a chance to win one-third of it.''

Jones had another message for his team this week.

"This isn't the same Albany High that was everybody's homecoming team,'' he said. "Our kids know they have to play this week. They understand that even though Albany High hasn't been successful in recent years, that this is a different Albany High.

"They are much improved. No. 1, they're confident after coming off the win against Dougherty. No. 2, they have had a year under Felton Williams and his system. They went out and executed their game plan against Dougherty. It showed at the end of the game.''

Even though the four teams have not played much in recent years, Albany and Westover have played most seasons and have faced each other eight times this decade.

They've been playing each other since 1970 (well, if you don't count that game between the Westover varsity and the Albany JV team back in 1968), and Albany holds a 22-15-1 edge. The tie was a 13-13 draw back in 1974.

But Westover has had the advantage since 1990, winning 11 of 18 games, and has a 5-3 edge since 2000. They haven't played since 2007 when Westover prevailed, 19-7. Westover has won the last five meetings, going back to 2002 when Albany managed a 33-28 victory.

In fact, 2002 was the last time Albany started a season 2-0. That year's Indians finished 7-5, and Albany hasn't had a winning season since. That's one reason tonight's game means so much to the Indians.

"Getting off to a 2-0 start would mean the world to the coaches and all of us,'' said Jibri Jimmerson, who plays tight end and defensive end for Albany. "By beating Dougherty ... it gave us confidence. I know we haven't beaten Westover in a long time, but we feel like we can line up with anybody.''

A victory tonight would mean a lot to Westover, too. Jones, a first-year coach, is trying to instill a new attitude for the Patriots, who have struggled for years in football.

"I'm glad the four teams are playing each other,'' Jones said. "This is good for everyone, and it means there will be an undisputed city champ. If you win it then in the offseason it gives you 365 days of bragging rights, and that should give you motivation going into the next season. There are only three games, so every one is real important.''

Westover lost to Mitchell County, 26-14, last week, and the Patriots also lost their top player, Herald Dynamite Dozen selection Chuck Lewis, a defensive back/receiver who re-injured his shoulder. Lewis won't play tonight and is still trying to decide whether to have surgery that would end his season.

"We know we're a team and not one player,'' Jones said. "Other players know they need to step up and play. We lost a tough one last week. I don't think they want that feeling again. We had a very good week of practice.''

The kids at Albany High had a big week for all the right reasons.

"Our Tuesday practice was one of the best days we've ever had,'' Williams said. "They practiced hard all week, and they are playing as if they had been winning for a while. We had to get down off the horse Monday. We want to keep them humble and hungry.''

The kids know that's the truth.

"We have to play even harder now that we're 1-0,'' said Albany quarterback Emmanul Byrd, who threw for 131 yards against Dougherty despite having several perfect passes dropped. "We realize we have a whole season to play.''

That's the feeling they want at Westover, where a new coach and a new system have brought optimism into a program that has struggled.

The Patriots had their moments in the loss to Mitchell County, racking up 346 yards of offense, including 287 yards on the ground. Quarterback Justin Taylor rushed for 122 yards on nine carries, and tailback Steve Bowens gained 81 yards on 15 carries.

Albany's defense gave up just one offensive TD to Dougherty, and that came on a short 39-yard drive that was aided by two 15-yard penalties, and played tough between the 20s all night.

It could be the same kind of game tonight.

"I think we match up pretty well in all phases of the game," Williams said. "The key to the game will be on the line of scrimmage.''

Jones can't argue that.

"Our offensive line is our defensive line, and they are the same way,'' he said. "We have kids playing both ways. It's going to boil down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who wants it the most.''