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Albany State seniors not ready for ride to end

Saturday’s Fountain City Classic could be final game for 15 seniors

Albany State’s players, including seniors Demonte Queen (53), Hakeem Lassiter (56) and Dexter Moody (3), celebrate after Saturday’s win against Benedict. A loss this weekend against Fort Valley State would likely be the final football game for ASU’s 15 seniors. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

Albany State’s players, including seniors Demonte Queen (53), Hakeem Lassiter (56) and Dexter Moody (3), celebrate after Saturday’s win against Benedict. A loss this weekend against Fort Valley State would likely be the final football game for ASU’s 15 seniors. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

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Albany State senior receiver Orion Ponder catches a touchdown Oct. 19 against Morehouse. Ponder is one of seven senior starters on the Rams, who have won three straight games entering Saturday’s Fountain City Classic. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

ALBANY — Marcavius Dudley remembers taking his pads off after last year’s loss in the Fountain City Classic and reluctantly handing in his equipment.

This fall, it’s tough for the senior linebacker to imagine shedding his jersey for a final time.

Dudley and his fellow seniors will need to beat Fort Valley State in Saturday’s Fountain City Classic to keep their careers alive — careers that have gone through remarkable ups and downs in the last four years but have the chance to end with an SIAC title if the Rams beat the Wildcats.

“It’s always an emotional time with your senior year coming to an end,” Dudley said. “You have been through so much to get to this point, and it’s finally here.”

Dudley is hoping the good-byes are put on hold for at least another week.

With ASU and FVSU entering Saturday’s game with identical 3-0 records in the East Division, the winner will play Nov. 16 in the SIAC championship game against either Tuskegee or Miles. The loser, barring an invite to a post-season bowl game, will play their final game of the year.

Senior offensive lineman Hakeem Lassiter isn’t ready for the ride to end.

“Ever since last week, that’s been entering my mind,” Lassiter said when asked if he had thought about Saturday possibly being his final football game. “We aren’t looking to be at home next week. We are looking to be in Atlanta next (Saturday for the SIAC championship game). We want to be talking about getting a ring.”

Fifteen seniors were honored before last Saturday’s 31-6 win against Benedict, including seven starters — Dudley, Lassiter, WR Orion Ponder, OL Darvel Nelson, S Dexter Moody, DB Quintory Braswell and DB Jeremy Reynolds.

It’s a senior class that has been through emotions as diverse as any group of players to come through the program.

Dudley was a freshman with the Rams in 2010 when they started the season with 11 straight wins and were crowned SBN Black College National Champions, and he was a key part of last year’s team that missed the Division II playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. No season, however, has been as trying as 2013 for the seniors, who watched the team fall to 1-4 but surged back with three straight wins heading into Saturday’s showdown with their biggest rivals.

The 2012 senior class members saw their careers end in the Fountain City Classic — a nightmare that Dudley and this year’s seniors want to avoid.

“I think about it all the time,” Dudley said. “Every day I wake up, I say, ‘Well, we have to finish this thing off.’ I felt that bad taste in my mouth last year when I had to turn my equipment in, and I hated it for the seniors last year. This year we are going to try to finish this thing off.”

The 15 seniors are hanging on to every moment this week as they prepare for the Wildcats, who have won two in a row in dominating fashion.

“I have pretty much been doing that the whole year, stepping back and taking in the little moments,” said Dudley, who has 49 tackles this season. “I’ve just been trying to take stuff in, because I know this is my last one. It’s like, dang, it came too quick.”

Ponder, a Moultrie native and three-year starter who has seven catches for 73 yards and a TD this season, thought back to his Pop Warner days when asked about his football career entering its final days.

“I’ve been playing since I was 6 or 7,” he said. “Football means a lot to me. … It always goes through my mind, even when I’m sleeping. When I’m at practice, sleeping or in class I’m thinking about it. These could be my last games.”

It’s been long journeys for each of the seniors, whose lives and devotion to football have become interwoven through the years.

Dudley said he started playing at the age of 5 and watched his life become shaped by the sport.

“I was destined to be the player and man I am because of football,” he said. “Discipline, having to wake up, having to be at practice, countless hours of film, weightlifting, it all helps you grow as a man as well as teaches you how to work with other people and other attitudes and emotions. It helps you grow as a person.

“I wake up every day and think about the blessing to be in the position I am in to play football for these many years. There are some people who wish they could just walk or crawl, but I was blessed to play football this long. It’s always felt like a blessing.”

And Dudley wouldn’t mind one more blessing before he turns his pads in.

“We gotta go win this ring,” he said. “That’s all that’s left.”