By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
When Independence and Liberty take the field in Glen Daniel tonight, both teams will do so knowing that the chances of making it into the postseason are slim.
To say that the two schools are similar would be an understatement. Both institutions opened their doors in 1976, on the bicentennial of the United States, and possess names that ooze patriotism. But that’s not where the similarities end.
The Chris Vicars-coached Patriots and the Jeff Alexander-coached Raiders are both looking for their third win of the season, in a game between two of Raleigh County’s biggest — and closest — rivals.
It’s the rivalry that has motivated the 2-5 Patriots this week, following a 51-0 trouncing from Summers County last Friday.
“We talked about it (Thursday) at the end of our walkthrough; sometimes the season doesn’t go the way you expect and it’s hard to keep the kids into it. But the good thing for us this week is we have a rivalry game,” Vicars said.
“It’s a rivalry game for sure,” Liberty’s Alexander added. “There’ve been times when we’ve both been playoff bound and we’ve had a pretty good game, and games where neither of us have been (playoff bound) and it was a good game. I think it’s going to be a good game.”
Liberty is still clinging to the hope of stringing together a series of wins to knock on the door of the Class AA playoffs. While it would be a long shot, Alexander isn’t giving up hope.
“They’re not dead. They’re on life support, but they’re not dead yet,” he said of his team’s playoff hopes. “If they win three games, the next three we play — against Independence, James Monroe and Shady (Spring) — we get big points. It kind of puts us sniffing the playoffs. That’s how we keep them motivated. Who’s going to win? Who’s going to lose? You just keep fighting and see what happens.”
If history is any indication, the Raiders will have luck on their side tonight in Glen Daniel. No team has won back-to-back games in this rivalry since 2005 and 2006, when the Patriots defeated the Raiders 22-15 and 15-12, respectively.
Independence won last year’s barnburner 40-37 in Coal City.
“When I first got (to Independence), the kids told me how big of a game Liberty is to us,” first year Independence coach Vicars said. “I’m used to rivalry games, as well. That helps with keeping the team motivated right now.”
Keeping his team focused and ready hasn’t seemed to be a problem for Vicars, despite having three lopsided losses (Greenbrier West, Westside and Summers County) on the record, to go along with a pair of heartbreakers (PikeView and Shady Spring). Recovering from those tough losses has been paramount for Vicars and his staff.
“It was a tough game (last week),” said Vicars. “There wasn’t a lot of yelling in the locker room (after the game). My message to them was sometimes you get in a game and sometimes those things are going to happen. Everything that we did was magnified, and it wasn’t just mistakes. It was huge mistakes that changed the game. I tried to remain positive with them.
“The kids kind of feed off of you so you want the kids to be positive,” he added. “We’re not going to the playoffs, and if the kids think that there’s nothing to play or practice for, they’ll feed off of that. Our goal is to win these last three game and get better and finish strong.”
For the Raiders, it’s been a season of growing pains. The young Liberty squad picked up its first win of the season against PikeView and another against Sherman, but suffered a loss to Webster County their last game out.
While Liberty may be trying to sniff the playoffs, they’re also building for the future.
“We knew it was going to be tough. We’re so young,” Alexander said. “We’ve got a sophomore quarterback and a sophomore running back. We’ve got a freshman on the line. We’re young everywhere. The good news is, all of those guys are back next year. I have my entire backfield back. We lose one senior at wide receiver. You try to do the best you can, and that’s what we’re doing.”
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If Liberty is able to put together some late season wins, in hopes of making the playoffs, one team looking to stand in its way will be the Shady Spring Tigers.
It hasn’t been an easy ride for Vince Culicerto’s bunch since moving to Class AAA a year ago. The Tigers are still looking for their first win in their new division. If they are to find it, it’s going to have to wait a few weeks. The Tigers will instead be looking to play spoiler to Class AA power Wyoming East.
The Warriors will come to Shady Spring tonight.
“Wyoming East has had some good games here since we started playing,” Culicerto said. “They’re ready to pay us back for some of the loses we’ve given them over the last few years. They’re jacked up and ready to go. It’s a good rivalry — a good, clean rivalry.”
The Tigers have only managed a solitary win this season, coming against Vicars’ Patriots in a hard-fought 14-7 game a few weeks ago. They’ll look to overcome that adversity tonight.
“In this business, it’s going to come around,” Culicerto added. “You’ve got to accept it, or you’re going to have a hard way to go. You get put in this position, but the boys keep fighting through it.
“It’s kind of how life can be. It throws you some rough times, and you see what kind of man you can be to get in there and keep fighting. The boys are still fighting hard. You can’t look back and feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to try to get better. If we keep getting better, that’s a goal of ours we’re reaching.”
Another motivating factor for a young Shady team will be picking up the win on homecoming, but Culicerto insists this week has been all business.
“The boys knew that the job is not to make floats this week,” he added. “It’s to win the game.”
— E-mail: jrollins
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.