Clay County (9-1) will play host to Luverne (7-3) in the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 3A playoffs tonight, and Lineville (7-3) will play host to Lamar County (6-4) in the 2A bracket.
With both schools due to merge into the new Central High School of Clay County for the 2012-13 school year, this season’s playoffs mean more than win or go home. It’s … weird.
“In the playoffs, if you’re not ready to play, you’re done,” Lineville coach and principal Steve Giddens said. “If we ever get to where it’s done for us, we’re done forever.”
For both storied programs, that means balancing the normal sense of focus and preparation with the air of sentiment. Everyone knows each game could be the last.
In one sense, both teams, coaching staffs and communities have gotten used to lasts this season. They’ve had their last homecomings and senior nights. They recently played their last regular-season games.
Much attention naturally surrounded the final Clay Bowl. Clay County won the final chapter of one of Alabama’s most celebrated high school rivalries 7-6 on Sept. 23 in Ashland.
With every passing week, the end has drawn nearer. Only the next game is promised in the playoffs, and the end is one loss away.
“The only way we’re going to know for sure when it ends is if we make it to that last week of the playoffs,” Clay County coach Kris Herron said, referring to the Super Six in Tuscaloosa.
That thought has occurred around both facilities.
“You try not to think about it, but you can’t help it,” Herron said. “You get home at night and you’re sitting there talking to your wife, and you say, ‘If we let this one get away from us, then it’s over.’
“You know, this dressing room will never be used again. These lockers are never going to be used again. These offices are going to start changing.”
For Herron, in his 22nd year as a member of Clay County’s staff and third as its head coach, the end will mean a few personal items will go home for the first time. That includes play sheets handed down from Danny Horn, his predecessor.
Herron said his locker also has long been home for two state-championship caps, each with the final score written on the bill. He also has the first Columbia-blue jacket Horn issued when Herron first joined the Panthers’ staff.
“It’s got a few buttons missing,” he said Thursday night. “I’m fixing to put it on now and go out and paint the field.”
While this year’s playoffs mean the end for both programs, the playoffs have become like part of their schedules.
Just in Herron’s time on Clay County’s staff, the Panthers are 59-19 in playoff games with six state championships.
The ideal ending would play out in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“The story-book ending would be a state championship,” he said.
Lineville has never won a state title in the playoff era but has made several deep runs, reaching the finals four times and semifinals 10.
“That we have talked about at the beginning of the year,” Giddens said. “I think about it a little bit, because we’ve been so close so many times.
“It would almost be surreal to win the state championship in the last game ever for Lineville High School. It would almost be fitting. As many times as we’ve been on the doorstep and hadn’t been able to finish the deal, to go out with a state championship might be the best of all endings.”
But Giddens, a Clay County graduate, wants to see both teams make deep runs in the playoffs and for more than sentimental reasons. Many of the same players will play for the merged school team next season, likely in Class 4A.
“It’s different now,” he said. “We’re rivals, and you don’t usually want your rival team to win, but it’s been different now, after we played them. Now, you hope they win.
“For all intents and purposes, their players are our players, and our players are their players. You kind of want them to be good.”
Both teams look likely to make deep runs this year. The season’s final Alabama Sports Writers Association poll has Clay County at No. 5 in 3A and Lineville at No. 10 in 2A.
Clay County’s lone loss this season came against region rival Handley, which finished the regular season unbeaten and ranked No. 2, behind Piedmont.
Herron called a state title “a realistic goal for this team.”
“If we have to lose, let’s lose to a team that’s better than us,” he said. “Let’s perform to the best of our abilities on Friday night.
“If we do that and it comes to an end, we won’t be happy about it. It won’t feel good, but at least we’ll know we gave it our best shot.”
Two of Lineville’s three losses this season came against Clay County and Handley, both highly ranked teams in a higher classification. The Aggies’ lone loss to a 2A opponent was a 28-21 setback against region foe Randolph County.
Giddens called his final Lineville team a pleasant surprise.
“We’re a better football team than I thought we might be, to be honest,” he said. “Going into the year, we lost 15 people that played for us for two or three years.
“These guys, I don’t know if it’s because of the last year or what, but they sort of seem to be a determined football team.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmdley_star.