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Unique challenges await local gridiron teams

The quarterfinal round of the state playoffs in Division II presents different challenges for the different teams remaining in Madison County.

In Division II-A, Jackson Christian has moved past the biggest piece of adversity it may have to deal with this season – a season-ending knee injury to four-star receiver Jay’Len Mosley that he suffered in the second quarter of the Eagles’ game at Trinity Christian on Oct. 26.

In the week of preparation leading up to their game last week with Ezell-Harding, which would wind up being a 37-7 victory, the Eagles had to figure out a new identity.

According to their performance last week, that new identity is taking the suffocating defense the Eagles had shown in the second half of the season and depending on that while the offense figured out how to move the ball without Mosley on the field.

“We’ve always had a ‘next man up’ mentality with this team because we never know when each guy on the sidelines might be needed in any given situation,” said JCS head coach Darby Palmer when asked about the team’s reaction to Mosley’s injury after the dust had settled from their loss at TCA. “And the receivers had that mindset and the secondary.

“But it wasn’t just them. Our quarterback, Austin Kelley, showed great leadership on his part when he sent out a message to all the receivers that following Sunday he was going to the stadium to throw the ball and he hoped to see as many receivers as possible out there with him. He wanted to work on timing with everyone.”

The work was effective as Kelley recorded a couple of touchdown passes in the win over Ezell-Harding to Trent Carrier and Jack Collins.

Palmer said after the win he expected to see that development continue this week in preparation for this week’s opponent, Columbia Academy.

On the other side of the bracket, TCA’s region championship meant the Lions didn’t have a game last week with a first-round bye.

So the Lions simply had to wait until last Friday to see who would win between Nashville Christian and Providence Christian. It was Nashville Christian, who’s bringing a 5-6 record to Jackson.

This matchup for TCA will be a test of how far the homestanding Lions have progressed in their first year under Darren Bowling.

He was introduced as head coach in the spring, and one of his foundational missions was to push the Lions to be a more physical football team.

It was difficult to see that physicality at first. But they showed grit and fight in a comeback win over Chester County before falling in their next game against University School of Jackson.

But that might’ve been a turning point.

“We were definitely pushed around a lot that night,” Bowling said weeks later. “I don’t know if any kind of light came on for any of the guys that night, but we were exposed in that game – especially in the second half.”

After that, the improvements came.

They outscored Fayette Academy with a record-breaking performance by some players then the dominating performance against an outmatched Manassas.

Then came the night when a lot of people began to take notice of TCA – their two-point loss at Riverside when they actually led by a couple touchdowns in the second half.

“We showed a physical style of play, but we just didn’t make plays down the stretch once Riverside got momentum back from us,” Bowling said.

The Lions then marched through their region schedule to lead up to the clash with Jackson Christian. They were down by a touchdown in the second quarter when Mosley’s injury happened and fell behind by a second touchdown at halftime.

But the Lions took advantage of five second-half turnovers to outscore JCS 24-0 to take the game and the region championship – setting up their game this week at home against Nashville Christian.

Now the Lions and Eagles are on opposing ends of the remaining eight-team bracket, meaning if each team wins twice, they would set up a titanic rematch for a state championship in Chattanooga.

In Division II-AA, USJ’s road is somewhat more difficult.

Of the eight teams remaining, six of them enter the second round of the playoffs with nine wins or more.

The seventh team is Northpoint Christian with eight wins, and USJ has the fewest number of wins with seven.

Their game this week is at Christ Presbyterian Academy, who suffered one loss in the regular season, an early game and close loss to Class 4A juggernaut Pearl-Cohn.

“If you want to win a state championship, you’ve got to beat the best teams at some point,” said USJ head coach Derrick Pritchard after the Bruins’ comeback win over Lakeway Christian last week. “It just so happens we have one of the best teams in the state up next, and we get to go to their place.

“That’s fine because what have we asked of our guys all year? We want them to compete. What will we ask of them this week? We want them to compete. If they enter that game with a mindset to compete and then they go do that on Friday night, then we’ll let whatever happens happen.”

Brandon Shields,

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