November 21, 2012 4:44:19 PM
VERNON, Ala. - The Lamar County High School football team will carry a heavy heart into its playoff game Friday.
At the height of its season, following two playoff victories, offensive and defensive line coach Don Thornton, 65, passed away Saturday. After retiring and serving as a city councilman in Vernon, Thornton spent five years as a volunteer assistant coach, helping Bulldogs linemen become some of the best in the Alabama High School Activities Association Class 2A ranks. He'd coached at other schools throughout the state, too.
This year's bunch, described by quarterback Dallas Cockerham as "small, but they come off hard and like to fight," has learned from Thornton's lessons.
"He's taught me a lot," said Jordan Ives, offensive lineman. "We're going to play hard for him. It's going to be a good, intense game."
Lamar County (9-3) will travel Friday to face Sweet Water (10-2) -- a team that hasn't lost at home this season. Sweet Water has held opponents to 14 points or less in all of its victories.
If there were a more daunting challenge for the grieving Bulldogs, they'd be hard-pressed to find one; the game is on the road and against one of the "best coached and athletic teams" in the classification, coach Ken Adams said.
"The intensity and sense of urgency has got to be there," Adams said, "and that's how we played last week. Our team had it. That said, it's the playoffs, so you're gonna get that from everybody.
"Sweet Water has been in the big games for a long time. Those kids expect to win. When something bad happens, they're going to keep rolling and eventually wear a team out."
Sweet Water's "40" defense will be tough to crack, particularly on the edges, Cockerham said. The junior quarterback has passed for 1,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 this season. Cockerham has scored 32 touchdowns for an offense that averages 242 yards rushing. Cockerham isn't the only threat in the running game, though. Sophomore Alex Wheeler has 794 yards and six touchdowns.
"Our wings have to do good blocking the linebackers so we can get the edge on them," Cockerham said. "Our line has to put up a good fight. If we can do those things, I think we'll be all right."
Adams said he sees a lot of the same characteristics in Sweet Water that he sees in his team, both in demeanor and in offensive philosophy.
"Sweet Water's gonna run the buck sweep, the trap, the belly, and then they throw the waggle rout," Adams said. "They feel like they're going to get their 10 yards every four downs and no one can stop them. It's two very similar teams with how we want to attack defenses, so we're going to go, do the things we do and do it without mistakes."
To keep his Bulldogs focused and ready to play mistake-free football, Adams said the staff has worked diligently to keep everyone on a schedule.
"It's a difficult situation," he said of Thornton's death. "We want to honor the family and understand they're going through a loss. That's first and foremost. For me, as a coach, you got 43 kids you make sure you lead in the right way. I talked to some coaches and mentors Saturday after I found out (about his death) to handle coaching the team and still grieving for the family, so we've tried to keep everyone on a schedule and emphasize the next phase."
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