By Les Dixon / For the Times-Tribune
Knox Central coach Scott Russell and his Knox Central Panthers are hoping the third time is the charm when they meet up with Russell County on the road Friday in a district championship match-up.
Friday's contest between the two teams will mark the third straight time the Panthers and the Lakers will face-off for the district title.
Unfortunately for Knox Central (6-2 overall, 2-0 against district teams), things haven't turned out well for them during the previous two meetings. The Lakers have won both games, picking up a 26-22 win two years ago while taking advantage of four Panthers turnovers last season in a 35-19 victory.
“Hopefully things will turn out better for us this time around,” Russell said. “This is a huge game for us. The past two years they have beat us, and in both games we have turned the ball over a lot. For us to win Friday, we've got to take care of the ball.”
Knox Central will also be looking for someone to step up in place of starting quarterback Matt Barger, who will miss this week's game due to having an AC separated in his shoulder.
Barger's absence will play a big role in Friday's game. He’s got more than 400 yards rushing, thrown for close to 300 yards from behind center while leading the Panthers in pass receptions and receiving yards. On defense he’s the team leader with three interceptions and is second with most fumble recoveries with two.
“It's big,” Russell said about Barger being out with an injury. “He does a whole lot for us, and he's going to be missed. That's a big loss for us, but it's the nature of the beast, things happen.
“We have challenged our kids this week,” he added. “We've told our kids that there isn't a better place to step up and answer the bell than right now in the district championship game.”
Freshman Casey Diamond will replace the injured Barger from behind center, and by no means is he a stranger to the position.He started the season as Knox Central's signal-caller, completing 21-of-44 pass attempts for 298 yards and four touchdowns before being replaced by Barger.
“Casey has a big arm,” Russell said. “He can change things for us, and we've got to use his skills and switch things up a bit on offense that will benefit him.
“One thing we've got to do is control the ball,” he added. “They've got a potent offense, so we've got to have a heavy dose of Jonathan Gist and Jonathan Mills.”
Russell said another key for his team is to contain Russell County's Evan Fletcher and Blake Ellis.
The tailback duo has run more than a combined 1,600 yards on the ground, including a combined 31 touchdowns.
“We've got to find a way to stop them,” Russell said. “Everyone feeds off those two players, so we've got to contain them. We also can't make any mistakes. Like I said, the last two times we played them, we were out wrong worst enemy.
“But the biggest thing is that we've get to show them down with hopes of burning a lot of the clock off,” he added. “We need to have a ball-control offense and if we can do those things, I like our chances.”