Returning to the playoffs

Victory Christian head coach Bruce Breland guided the Lions back to the postseason for the first time since 2015.

EDEN — Victory Christian’s high school football team will travel to G.S. Spruill Stadium in Reform to battle Pickens County in a first-round Class 1A playoff battle Friday night at 7.

The scheduled showdown marks the first-ever meeting between the Lions (6-4) and Tornados (8-2).

Pickens County enters the postseason as the winner of Region 6, with its only losses of 2019 coming against opponents from higher classifications, 2A Aliceville and 3A Gordo.

Victory Christian’s postseason journey wasn’t as clear-cut.

The Lions finished Region 5 play in a three-way tie that included Appalachian and Winterboro. The Eagles took the third seed in the region courtesy of Alabama High School Athletic Association Tiebreaker N -- “The team whose defeated opponents have the most victories.” 

The Lions earned the fourth playoff spot in the region due to their head-to-head victory over Winterboro, a 21-14 homecoming-spoiling win.

Here are three things to know about this face-off between unfamiliar foes:

Finishing with a winning season

Regardless of the outcome Friday night, the Lions can finish their season no worse than 6-5, securing the team’s first winning season since its 2015 playoff run.

“It’s certainly not our goal to just finish above .500,” Lions head coach Bruce Breland said. “I think the guys realize that we didn’t start off strong. We got better as the season went, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted to improve every week, so I think they started building confidence as the season went and started feeling good about themselves, realizing what they were capable of doing.”

The turning point for the Lions came during a three-week stretch where they seemingly couldn’t lose homecoming contests. The capstone victory in that run, a 21-14 victory over Winterboro, gave Victory Christian its first win over the program.

“They do have a lot of heart,” Breland said of his squad. “The young guys, by that point in the season, they’re not so young anymore … They have some tenacity and they’ll get after you. That’s what I love about them so much is their heart because they do play with a lot of heart every time they go out there.”

More than a Tornado drill

Breland said his squad has a lot of respect for Pickens County, and having to face a team like the Tornados will help drive home the importance of where the Lions finish in region play. In addition to being a region champion, Pickens County was tops among “others receiving votes” in the final 1A top 10 of the regular season.

“Next year, that will pay dividends for us to be looking for an even better position than we were in this year,” he said. “We know that finishing fourth and making it to the playoffs was a positive. We look forward to playing. We know Pickens County is good, but we’ve played some good ball teams this year as well.”

Slowing down Pickens County may prove to be more than a euphemism. Breland said the Tornados are the fastest team and one of the largest the Lions have seen on their schedule.

“It’s a good combination,” Breland said. “That’s why they’re No. 1 in their region and ranked so high in the state. 

“We’ve got to try to get a lot of guys to the football because of their speed and we’ve got to understand the speed because we can’t duplicate it in practice. We can’t show them what they’re about to see, so we’ve got to believe from the first snap that this guy’s going to be faster than me. We’ve got to adjust to that.”

He added playing in Region 5 has given his team a chance to see some speed and size prior to the postseason.

“It should give us some confidence going in because we’ve seen size like that and we’ve seen speed,” Breland said. “We’re not just going in blindly to something, so we have been there and we have competed with it.”

Overcoming adversity

The Lions endured their share of injuries during the course of the season, but Breland said they’ve been able to battle through it and get back key players who went down.

“The thing is, when those guys were out, we had some young guys who stepped up and played,” he said. “Any time you do that and guys step up, not only do you build a little more cohesiveness, but you also build more depth … They’re building confidence on the playing field. You can go over something 1,000 times in practice, but until it’s live-action, it’s not for real to them.”

While freshman quarterback Dalton Lewellyn gets his share of the credit for the Lions’ successes, Breland said several other freshmen have showcased their abilities this season.

“(Cameron) Cheatwood is one of them,” Breland said. “He starts at tight end for us. He went out injured, and we thought he had a fractured sternum. He’s wearing special padding right now. Fortunately, it wasn’t fractured, so he was one of those guys who has toughed it out and came back. He’s playing lights out …

“Our starting center, Ayden Rogers, is another one. He’s just been consistent all year long. He’s done a great job for us.”

Breland said his team will need to be aware of the magnitude of the game in what may be the first playoff experience for any members of the roster.

“It’s going to be new for a lot of our kids this Friday night,” he said. “They’ve got to understand the intensity of not only what’s (happening) on the field, but the crowd and the urgency of what’s got to happen right now because there is no tomorrow.” 

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