Chris Wade had the title of "acting coach" switched to "interim coach" this week when head coach Michael Pollock was officially fired by the Sumter County Board of Education on Wednesday.
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WHO: Monroe (3-2) at Americus-Sumter (4-1).
WHAT: Region 1-AAAA duel.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
LIVE SCORING UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldsports.
AMERICUS — A team meeting, a bye week to heal their wounds and a return home for coach Charles Truitt.
Could Monroe ask for much more?
“We’re ready,’’ said Monroe defensive back Jawaski Randle, who remembers how much it hurt to lose to Americus-Sumter last year, a 6-0 loss in which Monroe turned the ball over seven times and had a pass dropped in the end zone with 35 seconds left.
It could hurt even more if the Tornadoes lose tonight in Americus.
It’s a little early to put your season on the balance of one game, but that’s just about what Monroe faces tonight against the Panthers.
The Tornadoes (3-2) are 1-1 in the Region 1-AAAA race and still have visions of winning the title.
They can’t do it without a win tonight against the Panthers, who are off to a 2-0 start in the region with their own ideas about who is going to win the title.
And they’ve won in turmoil. Head coach Michael Pollock was suspended over their last three games — all wins — and lost his job Wednesday following a school board meeting.
Offensive coordinator Chris Wade took over in Pollock’s absence and has led the team above and beyond. He will run the team as the interim coach the rest of the season.
“The kids there have done a great job of playing, considering everything they have been through,’’ said Truitt, who grew up in Americus. “It says a lot for their team that they’re playing that well.’’
Now that it’s official that Wade has the team for the rest of the season, the Panthers might just run the table.
“We didn’t talk to the kids and have a meeting or anything,’’ Wade said Thursday, the day after Pollock was fired. “I don’t think it’s a burden being lifted off them. The kids have been thinking about football and about how to win football games. There was a burden of constantly being asked questions about it.’’
A region title would be a storybook ending for a team that has been through so much. But it won’t be easy.
Cairo, which has won the last three region titles, is sitting at 2-0 and in control after knocking off Westover (1-1) two weeks ago. Americus, ranked No. 3 in the Herald’s Fab 5 Poll, faces Herald No. 5 Westover at home next week and Cairo at home in two weeks. Those game won’t mean as much without a win against Monroe, which hopes to beat Americus tonight and then run the table, including a win against Cairo in Albany on Nov. 2.
That’s why tonight is so critical.
“We’ve got to have it,’’ Truitt said. “We know to insure our chances of winning the region, we have to win this game.’’
But there’s more to it.
Monroe’s kids are still upset over a 17-14 loss to city rival Westover. Monroe had been the top-ranked team by The Herald and ranked No. 9 in the Class AAAA state poll before losing the region opener to the Patriots.
“A lot of criticism has been coming at us after we lost that game,” Randle said. “A lot of people who were on our side are now against us. We’ve got to win this game.
“It’s a big game. You can’t run from it. You have to go get it, and we’re ready. We had a great week of practice. We’re ready to prove a lot of people wrong.’’
The kids had a private team meeting on their own to try to turn the season around, and Randle said the team came out of the meeting feeling anew.
“We’re totally different,’’ he said. “We’re focused on what we need to do, and we’re humble.’’
Everyone knows the significance of the game.
“The region is going to go through Americus and Cairo,’’ said Monroe linebacker Anthony Smith, a Herald Dynamite Dozen player. “If we’re going to win the region we’ve got to beat Americus, and we’ve got to beat Cairo.
“We know we have to come out and play hard from the beginning of the game. We’ve got to bring the intensity and come out at full throttle. We’ve seen what happens when we come out the other way,’’ he added, referring to Monroe’s slow start against Westover.
Americus is led by running back Wesley Fields, who has rushed for more than 800 yards in five games, and quarterback Bryce Benton, who has thrown for more than 750 yards. Jonathan Thomas is the most dangerous player on the field for the Panthers, who’ll use him on both sides of the ball as a defensive back, a receiver and tailback. He even runs out of the Wildcat formation.
Americus’ offense has taken off as of late. The Panthers (4-1) have scored 83 points in their two region games and 107 during their three-game winning streak.
“They’re more balanced this year than they were last year,’’ Truitt said. “They run the ball real well, and they still have that quarterback from last year, and he can throw. They’ve got (Thomas), and he’s a very good player on offense and defense. We have to realize where he is at at all times. And this is going to be the biggest offensive line we have faced this year.’’
Monroe brings its own set of obstacles to Americus, including Dynamite Dozen QB Charles Stafford, who has completed 71 of 112 passes for 957 yards, despite six dropped passes in the first half against Westover and having to play in a driving rain in the second half against Albany. He has thrown nine TD passes and rushed for four more, His favorite target is Kevin Williams, who has made 27 receptions for 456 yards and scored five touchdowns. Williams also has returned two kicks back for TDs.
And the Tornadoes, who have given up just three points in the last six quarters of region play, have what the kids call the “Green Wall” defense, which is led by Smith — who is averaging 10.1 tackles a game — Randle and defensive back Ernest Davis.
“Defensively, Monroe is really sound,’’ Wade said. “Coach Truitt does a great job motivating them. And on offense they have two or three guys who — every time they touch the ball — they’ve got a chance to score. And their quarterback can throw the ball.
“They came in as the favorite to win the region and probably should have been. It’s a big game for both teams.’’