By JOEL COLEMAN
The Ackerman football team is well aware of the hype West Bolivar brings to town tonight as the two schools battle in the third round of the playoffs for a trip to the Class 2A North final.
Still, even as his Indians prepare for their stiffest challenge to date, Ackerman head coach Adam Dillinger wants everyone to understand the Eagles aren't the only talented squad that'll be battling it out on the gridiron starting at 7 p.m. in Choctaw County.
"We're one of the top four teams in the North and we didn't get here by accident," said Dillinger. "But (West Bolivar) didn't either. They earned the right to be here as well and they've been one of the favorites, not just this year, but the last several years.
"But our kids are playing with confidence right now. We don't have a cocky attitude or anything, but we know what we've done to get to this point and we feel good about (tonight)."
Ackerman (10-3) has indeed traveled a remarkable road to even have its current opportunity.
One year ago at this time, the Indians were sitting at home following a 1-10 season.
Just 12 months later and Ackerman is the Class 2A, Region 2 champion and is riding an eight-game winning streak.
The Indians' surge has carried on, in large part, thanks to a defense that has posted three shutouts in the last four games, a sequence that includes Ackerman's 21-0 win over O'Bannon and 29-0 victory over Broad Street in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, West Bolivar (12-1) has also been spearheaded by its defense. The Eagles haven't given up more than 22 points all season long and have held opponents to six points or fewer eight times this year.
Finding a way to break through against West Bolivar could be the key to tonight's game according to Dillinger.
"What makes (West Bolivar) really good is their defense," said Dillinger. "They are as good of a defensive team as I've seen in a long time. And it's not just one part or one person that stands out. The whole unit plays really well. They fly to the football and can run at all 11 positions."
Making the Eagles all the more tough is their experience level. West Bolivar starts 10 seniors on defense and seven on offense. All of the remaining starters for both offense and defense are juniors.
"They're very mature," said Dillinger. "They don't have a single sophomore that starts on either side of the ball. That by itself shows they are a veteran club that has been around. They've all been in battles before."
Arguably no West Bolivar player has played as big of an impact in the Eagles' recent wars as junior running back Kalio Moore.
Moore, who has verbally committed to Ole Miss, has 1,394 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns this season.
This year's totals are actually down from Moore's sophomore campaign last season, when he ran for 2,298 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.
Don't let Moore's drop in production fool you, however.
Dillinger says it simply illustrates West Bolivar's many weapons.
"They've got really good skill guys and they've got a couple of guys that could play for anybody," said Dillinger. "(Moore) gets a lot of the credit and notoriety, but they've got other guys that are good and solid too."
There's at least a chance West Bolivar will have to rely even more heavily this week on players not named Moore.
Moore was actually injured in the Eagles 15-14 win over Bruce last week, but his status for tonight's game remains unclear.
What is clear is that tonight's winner will face either Calhoun City or Simmons next week for the Class 2A North title.
Dillinger knows it won't be easy to get past West Bolivar and move one step closer to a state championship.
Still, Dillinger hopes Ackerman, who has to this point enjoyed the rarity of playing every postseason game at home, can once again rally around Indians supporters and keep this year rolling for another week.
"I think sometimes (fan support) is underestimated," said Dillinger. "But our kids, they feed off the energy of the crowd and if it's a tight game, (playing at home) definitely helps."