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Tanner football
Eyes on the prize
By Justin Graves
The Decatur Daily

Jeronimo Nisa/The Decatur Daily
Tanner quarterback Jonathon Fletcher, right, hands the ball off to Fred Rich during practice Tuesday. Tanner quarterback Jonathon Fletcher, right, hands the ball off to Fred Rich during practice Tuesday, December 4, 2012.

TANNER — Waiting patiently in line at the trainer’s table to get his ankle taped, Fred Rich didn’t participate in the regular pre-practice chatter.

Instead, the Tanner High linebacker stood quietly while staring at his phone.

Sending text messages? Searching the Internet?

Not exactly — especially with the Rattlers so close to reaching a significant goal.

On Rich’s smart phone was game film from Tanner’s opponent in this week’s Class 2A state title game: Fifth-ranked Washington County.

“This week, it feels like it’s taking forever,” Rich said. “I know game day can’t get here fast enough.”

Top-ranked Tanner (13-0) plays Washington County (13-1) for the Class 2A state title Friday at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m.

This is a moment that Rich and company have anxiously anticipated since Tanner’s 2011 season ended with a 34-14 loss to Elba in the state championship game.

Coming so close to perfection — and the program’s first state title — only to have those dreams swiped away at the end was an emotional free fall the Rattlers have not forgotten. Returning to the championship game, and this time finishing the job, has been the team’s motto since the offseason began.

“Football is such a long season,” Tanner coach Laron White said. “From offseason workouts, to everything we do in the summer, to fall practice and the grind of playing games for 15 weeks. All of that alone can take a toll on you, but to fight through all of those battles and come up short at the very end, that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. None of our players want to experience that again.”

Last season’s disappointing end is a topic frequently discussed inside Tanner’s field house. Forgetting the emotional free fall is not an option.

Thus the team’s intense focus and drive.

“None of us have forgotten what it felt like to come so close, only to lose at the end,” Tanner running back Hayden Stephens said. “That was a terrible feeling. We felt like we were better than we played that day. Anytime you lose your last game, that sticks with you through the offseason.”

The determination to complete what the 2011 team did not has shown on the field. For this Tanner team, consistency is a dominant trait.

Glancing over his team’s schedule, White was unable to pinpoint a single game where he would call his team’s performance poor.

“That’s probably the one thing I’m most pleased with,” he said. “I can’t think of a single game where they’ve played down to their competition. Maintaining that kind of focus through such a long season isn’t easy to do. Achieving that kind of focus, keeping everyone’s sites on our goals, that’s a testament to the type of leaders we have on this football team.”

That focus hasn’t faded now that Tanner has moved within one win of its primary objective. If anything, White said it’s stronger than ever.

According to White, Monday’s practice was one of the team’s best since the postseason began in early November. And Tuesday afternoon, players were gathering on the field in full pads about 20 minutes earlier than normal.

“I can’t wait to get out there and play,” Rich said. “It’s eating me up inside. This is what we’ve all been thinking about since last year, and it can’t get here fast enough because we’re going to finish the job this time.”

Prep football playoffs at a glance

Who: No. 1 Tanner (13-0) vs. No. 5 Washington County (13-1)

What: Class 2A state title game

Where: Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium

When: Friday at 3 p.m.

Admission: $10 if tickets purchased in advance at $12 is tickets purchased at the gate.

Area's past state champions: Ardmore (1958, 1961), Athens (1975, 1976, 2006), Clements (1966), Courtland (1988, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1999), Decatur (1932, 1933, 1949, 1971), Hartselle (2011), Hazlewood (1970, 1975, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 2000), West Limestone (1957)

AHSAA Super 6

Thursday's schedule

Class 3A: Madison Academy (12-2) vs. Fayette County (12-2), at 11 a.m.

Class 1A: Marion County (13-1) vs. Brantley (14-0), at 3 p.m.

Class 5A: Spanish Fort (13-1) vs. McAdory (14-0), at 7 p.m.

Friday's schedule

Class 4A: UMS-Wright (12-2) vs. Oneonta (14-0), at 11 a.m.

Class 2A: Tanner (13-0) vs. Washington County (13-1), at 3 p.m.

Class 6A: Hoover (14-0) vs. Opelika (10-4), at 7 p.m.

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