Pick ‘Em likes the long shot

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“Ohhhh, wooooooe is meeee!”

“Pick ‘Em, why are you in such a pickle?” I asked. “What’s the predicament?

“Enough alliteration, you aimless and apprehensive autocrat,” he admonished. “I can’t make head or tails of this.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I replied, as I curiously eyed a voodoo doll with a Mustang head wearing pink mini-panties. “After a week of reading tea leaves, sorting tarot cards and sending to the heavens an endless series of incantations, you still can’t pick a winner between Pleasant Grove and West Orange-Stark in the state championship game?”

He hurriedly shoved the doll into a dresser drawer.

“Oh, I get an answer,” he sharply replied. “A unanimous one, but it doesn’t make sense.”

“How is that, oh, fearless – and usually correct – prognosticator? You and PG are both 15-0 going into this one.”

“Look. They’re unbeatable. How could all the signs point to them losing?

“Who?”

“West-Orange Stark. Or is it West Orange-Stark?” he said. “I can never keep it straight, and what is an Orange Stark? A drink?”

“Is that why the UPS man keeps dropping off cases of Caribbean rum?”

“This is the Mustangs’ fourth straight title game,” he said, ignoring the question. “Since losing to Celina in the 2015 championship game, this team has won 40 straight and two state titles. Forty straight! They don’t lose! Their coach, Cornel Thompson, is 91-11 since coming over in 2011.

“And they have tradition. This is the school’s eighth title game appearance. They won four of the previous seven. How can Pleasant Grove beat a team like that in its first try?”

“Well …”

“And they got dudes!” he exclaimed. “Their quarterback, Chaka Watson, has got, like, Olympian speed. Last week, against Wimberly, he ran for 235 yards and two touchdowns, one of those for 99 yards.

“They got a cornerback, Jarron Morris, who is ready to play for the Cowboys today. Last week he returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown and had a big interception to set up another score.”

“That’s pretty good, but …”

“They got other dudes, too,” he said shrilly. “They got backs like Kayven Cooper and a great senior safety in Blake Robinson.”

“Man, that does sound unbeatable,” I said.

“So why do all the signs point to a Hawk victory?”

“I can think of a few reasons, Pick ‘Em.”

“Like?”

“There is not a lot of information out there about WO-S … “

“Woes?”

“I guess that would be phonetically correct. As I was saying, I don’t know much about their schedule, but I know a lot about PG’s, and it was salty.

“Early wins against Arkansas High, Paris and Liberty-Eylau, bigger schools who all reached the playoffs, were more meaningful than they seemed at the time. The Hawks ran the table in a district that contains four teams – Pittsburg, Atlanta, Gladewater, Gilmer – who have state titles in their history.

“I see,” said Pick ‘Em in a somewhat calmer voice. He sat down and took a sip of his tea. It smelled delicious, but he didn’t offer any, and one does not impose upon a man with a closet full of voodoo apparatus.

“The Hawks would seem to have the lead in senior leadership, with 16 senior starters, nine on offense and seven on defense. An old coach once told me, ‘The only thing I can’t coach is experience.’ Learning how to play the game, and how to play together is critical, and PG has a bunch of guys who have been together since middle school, and some since youth football.

“On the other hand, West Orange-Stark this year had to break in a bunch of new guys. Here’s what their coach said:”

“This crew right here was eat, ride and warm up last year with the exception of a few players,” coach Thompson told the Beaumont Enterprise. “Now, those guys are being called on to answer the bell. Some are doing that and some aren’t quite there yet. A bunch are still learning as they go.”

“They’ve had a lot of time to learn together,” I continued, “but a lack of experience can result in a big play or two. Take out Watson’s 99-yard TD run and Morris’ punt return and the Hawks are playing Wimberly in Cowboy Stadium.”

“Hmmm,” said the festively attired little man. “Hadn’t thought of that.”

“On top of that, while PG has been dominating in its playoff run, the WOES have been scrapping by. They beat Salado, 14-0, Madison 28-26 and Mexia 17-3. I’ll go out on a limb and say none of those teams has a defense as scrappy as PG’s.”

“But what about that chain-gang defense. Those guys only give up 8.2 points a game and posted four shut-outs?”

“They’re for real, Pick ‘Em. PG won’t get anywhere near its usual 43 points per game. The line isn’t big, but it’s very quick and, like everybody on that team, is exceptionally athletic.”

“But their coach said that something like 26 of their 40 wins came against Wing-T teams. They know how to slow down PG’s offense,” Pick ‘Em noted.

“Right again, oh perfect predictor,” I replied. “PG isn’t going to rip off the long runs like it did when it demolished Celina, Melissa, and Graham. This will be more like four yards and a cloud of astroturf. On the other hand, the Hawks throw the ball better than most running teams, and have some dudes of their own, like Xavier Benson and Carson Cox, who might come up with a big play here and there.

“One or two may be all it takes.”

“So you’re picking the Hawks because of schedule, experience, defensive strength and offensive balance?”

“Nope. I like the Hawks because, throughout the playoffs, they have improved every week. As well as they have played, as great as they have become – best playoff team, in the sense of team, that I have ever covered –  I think they still can take it up one more level.

“And I think they will because they have the character, the drive, the ambition, and because they are the hungrier team.

“Knocking off this tradition-rich powerhouse really will put PG on the map.”

The little man reached for a scrap of paper and scribbled on it.

“Here,” he said, slapping it on the table as he left the room.

Pleasant Grove 24, West Orange-Stark 10.

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A veteran journalist and educator, Bill Owney is a 1980 graduate of the University of Florida. Writing awards include APME honors for investigative reporting, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Award for public service reporting and numerous awards for editorial, column and news writing. He served as publisher of the Atlanta Citizens Journal and Pittsburg Gazette when each paper won sweepstakes awards from the Texas Press and North and East Texas Press Associations. He spent 15 years as a public school teacher and is an adjunct professor of English at Texarkana College.