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Trojans face Cardinals in regional clash

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Center Grove Senior Logan Hutson runs for a long first quarter touchdown in Friday night's sectional game vs New Albany
Center Grove Senior Logan Hutson runs for a long first quarter touchdown in Friday night's sectional game vs New Albany

The generations-old line about patience being a virtue should give serious thought about making Bill Peebles its spokesman.

Southport’s ninth-year football coach, the one whose Cardinals won two of 30 games over his first three seasons (2005-2007), finds himself in charge of an undefeated team two victories removed from participation in the Class 6A state championship game.

Hurdle No. 1 is a doozy: attempting to win tonight’s regional game at No. 3 Center Grove.

The fourth-ranked Cardinals downed visiting Tech 27-10 on Nov. 1 to capture the program’s first sectional championship since 1990. Ironically, that was the last time Southport played Center Grove in football, with the Trojans losing a sectional semifinal 22-0.

“I didn’t even know they had played at all,” admitted Peebles, 43, who as a junior played linebacker and on the offensive line for Cathedral’s first non-mythical (3A) state championship team in 1986.

“Center Grove is a heck of a program. Sound across the board in everything they do. It’s fun to prepare for a team like that, to be honest with you.”

Such might not have been the case when Peebles first got to Southport. In the nine seasons prior to his arrival (1996-2004), the Cardinals were an abysmal 15-75 overall and 2-9 in postseason play.

Peebles, who had been an assistant coach at Cathedral for 10 seasons and three state championship teams, appeared to be leaving a luxury cruise for a window seat on the Hindenburg.

Then, in season No. 4, it happened. Progress followed by belief.

Southport won nine games in 2008, another five the following season and eight more in 2010. The Cardinals were 5-5 in both 2011 and 2012, but are flying at impossibly high altitudes these days, having outscored its 11 foes by an average of 37-18.

“There’s no easy answer for me to tell you what we did. There is no magic pill,” Peebles said. “The first thing I did was assemble an outstanding coaching staff. I’m also very fortunate here to have such a supportive administration.”

Southport is extremely balanced on offense, led by 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior running back Christian Perry and 6-4, 175-pound sophomore quarterback Luke Johnston.

Perry has run for 2,282 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. He averages 207.5 yards a game and 7.3 per carry. Johnston is extremely accurate through the air (183 of 295) and good for 2,423 yards and 27 scores compared to only eight interceptions.

Johnston is able to direct spirals in a number of directions with positive results. Senior Tim Jewell (55 receptions, 838 yards, 8 TDs) and junior Cardell Tucker (54-509-7) headline a talented group of receivers. Versatile fullback Chinoya Phiri, a 200-pound senior, has rushed for 497 yards and snagged 22 receptions for 372.

Add up the parts and the Center Grove defense led by senior tackle Dillon Dallas and senior free safety Alex Auckerman could be facing one of the most potent offenses it has seen this season.

“Their two running backs are really good. One speed guy and one power guy. Southport is real balanced. There aren’t many weaknesses you can find,” said Trojans coach Eric Moore, who in 15 seasons has assembled a postseason record of 38-13.

“The motivation is that it’s win-or-go-home time. I’ve told the players, ‘If you need to get motivated to play this game, you need to go home.’”

The programs have no common opponents this season, although Southport did defeat former Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference members Terre Haute North (11-10 in two OT) and Terre Haute South (34-7).

For what it’s worth, Center Grove’s victories over those same two programs in 2012 were by scores of 17-15 (North) and 55-28 (South).

“For us, we walk into this game knowing we are big underdogs,” Peebles said. “If we tackle and don’t make mistakes, we feel we can compete. If we don’t tackle and do make mistakes, we won’t. We’re going to have to play our best game of the year.”

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