The Central-Phenix City Red Devils are one win away from reaching the Class 7A state championship game for the second straight year. In their way stands an Auburn High Tigers team coming off the biggest upset of the playoffs.
Auburn (9-3, 4-2) heads to Phenix City tonight to face Central (11-1, 6-0) in the Class 7A semifinals. The showdown in Garrett-Harrison Stadium will be the second time the two teams have played this fall after Central topped Auburn 34-7 on Oct. 25.
The Tigers shocked the state last Friday when they traveled to Mobile to face the undefeated McGill-Toolen Yellow Jackets and soundly thumped the home squad 26-0. The victory featured another stellar performance by the Auburn defense — which notched its second straight shutout of the postseason — and another great game on the ground by running back Aaron Diggs.
Diggs has been a revelation as Auburn’s top back, and that was again the case against the Yellow Jackets. Diggs took 42 carries for 200 yards and three scores to help the Tigers not only upset McGill-Toolen but leave the Yellow Jackets in the dust.
“First of all, our kids had a great week of practice. Our kids were really focused to go play well. I thought it showed in the game,” Auburn High head coach Adam Winegarden said. “We played very consistently for four quarters, and we were able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides. We were able to run the football. They were running the football as well, so the clock was moving fast on both sides. The game had limited possessions, and we're thankful that we capitalized on a lot of ours.”
In playing Auburn, Central faces the challenge of beating a team for the second time in one season. It’s the same objective the Red Devils handled with relative ease in the second round.
The Red Devils made short work of region rival Prattville last week, topping the Lions in a 24-6 victory. The Central defense held Prattville to 186 yards of offense, and Red Devils running back Joseph McKay put up two first-quarter scores to take care of business.
“Defensively, we came out and played really well all night. I think the weather conditions played into it a little bit. We got into a running-the-football contest, and we felt pretty good about that,” Central head coach Jamey DuBose said. “We were able to keep them out of the end zone, get off to another fast start and get up 14-0 by the end of the first quarter. Then we attacked to get a couple more scores and went into half up 24-6. The second half we just kind of took the air out of the ball and tried to slow it down and get out with a win.”
DuBose said when the playoff bracket came out he told his coaches they would eventually face Auburn again, and he refuted the idea that Auburn’s win last week was an upset. He called Auburn the better team compared to McGill-Toolen, adding that the Tigers have one of the best rushing attacks around in addition to having a physical front and a disciplined defense.
Winegarden, meanwhile, lauded the Red Devils for being super talented and well-coached. He said the combination of those two things make Auburn’s margin for error very, very small.
Winegarden stressed the importance of playing consistently through the four quarters of action, which the Tigers were unable to do in their first meeting with the Red Devils. DuBose pointed to controlling the pace of the game as a major key as well as forcing three-and-outs on defense and creating turnovers.
The Red Devils and Tigers know that whoever gets the upper hand tonight will be playing in the opening game of the Super 7 championship game series on Wednesday, Dec. 4. A Central win would mean the Red Devils could make it back-to-back titles; A win for the Tigers, meanwhile, would mean a shot at winning the first championship in program history in their own backyard.
“The kids have had a tremendous year. Like I've said all season, this group has been such a great group to get a chance to coach,” Winegarden said. “I think that would be exciting for our community for sure. For our team, I think the reward for us is going to be getting to keep practicing and being a team together.
“I think the games are icing on the cake, but the great joy has been found in the daily journey.”