Callaway, Opelika set for opening-night clash
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
There’ll be no easing into the season for the Callaway Cavaliers.
Callaway, coming off another ultra-successful season under head coach Pete Wiggins, will kick things off today with an out-of-state showdown against the Opelika Bulldogs.
Opelika, which reached the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs in Alabama last year, are expected to be one of the state’s best teams again this season.
“All we can ask for is the opportunity to have a game like this,” said Wiggins, who is in his 14th season as Callaway’s head coach. “Our kids have worked hard for a long time to get to this point, and they’re excited about playing. When we go on the field, we feel we’re going to win, regardless of who we’re playing. I think it’ll be a great atmosphere. I know they’ll bring a huge crowd. We’ll have a huge crowd. And it’ll be what Friday nights are supposed to be.”
Callaway went 11-2 last season, and it reached the quarterfinals of the Class AA state playoffs before losing to Brooks County.
While the Cavaliers are loaded with talent once again, it will be a drastically different team than the one that made a deep playoff run a year ago.
Fourteen seniors from last year’s team, in fact, will be playing college football this season, so that’s a lot of holes to fill.
“When you play a team like Opelika, you find out where you are,” Wiggins said. “And coming into the season, we have a lot of unknowns. We have a lot of new starters. We have guys that have been with us for a long time, but they haven’t started. So when you go against a team like Opelika that’s got so many ballplayers, and they’re well-coached, it’s going to challenge us.”
Callaway did play Starr’s Mill in a preseason game two weeks ago, and it was an impressive effort.
The Cavaliers dominated on both sides of the ball, and they rolled to a 26-6 win.
Callaway’s running game, which figures to be the bread-and-butter of the offense, was in control, with Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby and Charlie Dixon churning out big yards.
Jacob Freeman, a big-play wide receiver last season who has taken over as quarterback, looked comfortable running the offense, and he threw a touchdown pass to Antinez Blount.
It helps that Callaway has a veteran and imposing offensive line, with seniors Keiondre Jones and Keshawn Cameron leading the way.
Cameron, who has taken over as Callaway’s center, was unable to play against Starr’s Mill because of an injury, but he should be ready to go today.
Callaway’s defense got it done against Starr’s Mill as well, holding a potent offense to a pair of field goals.
The Cavaliers were hit hard by graduation on defense, but there are some veterans returning who have spent plenty of time under the lights.
Among that group is inside linebacker Tely Fanning, who was Callaway’s second-leading tackler last season.
Fanning has overcome a pair of serious knee injuries from when he was younger to become a productive player for the Cavaliers.
Another veteran on defense is defensive lineman Nathan Sapp, who has committed to Jacksonville State.
Defensive back Qua Hines, who will also get some touches on offense as a running back, returns as well.
Wiggins has no doubt defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard will have the defense humming once again, even with all of the personnel losses.
“Coach Hubbard always gets the most out of his kids,” Wiggins said. “He brings an intensity to the defensive side of the ball. I think he does a great job of getting the kids to leave everything they’ve got on the field.”
Callaway’s defense will be put to the test today.
Opelika has a veteran quarterback in Cade Blackmon, who threw for more than 1,300 yards with 10 touchdowns as a junior.
A strength of Opelika’s offense is its running game, with seniors Brantan Barnett, Kani Kellum, Naetavious Evans and Eric Watts all capable of getting it done.
Opelika should be stout on defense as well, particularly at the linebacker position which returns a number of experienced players.
“From an offensive standpoint, they can use the whole field, throwing the ball, and running the ball,” Wiggins said. “Defensively, they run to the ball extremely well, and they play really good technique. They’ve got good players, and a lot of depth.
“So, it’s going to be a great challenge. But our kids are excited. We’ve played in a lot of big games, and played against a lot of really good teams over the years. So, we just have to play Callaway football, and that’s be able to run the ball, and minimize our turnovers, and play fast on defense. And when we have opportunities, take advantage of them.”
WHEN: Today, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Callaway Stadium
LAST YEAR: Callaway went 11-2 and reached the quarterfinals of the Class AA playoffs; Opelika went 9-4 and reached the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAAA playoffs
COACHES: Callaway – Pete Wiggins (115-42 in 13 seasons); Opelika – Erik Speakman (first season as head coach after 17 seasons as assistant)