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Photo courtesy of Tuscaloosanews.com

Two of the premier high school football teams in West Alabama are scheduled to renew their annual rivalry on Friday night when Class 7A Tuscaloosa County travels to play Class 6A Hillcrest.

For Hillcrest, it's a chance to show that last year's 3-7 record, the Patriots' worst season since 2006, was an anomaly and that they are still yearly contenders for their region title. For Tuscaloosa County, it could signal a resurgence for a team that once ranked among the state's best but has won just nine games over the last five seasons.

The Wildcats' 35-0 win over Paul Bryant in the season opener last week, their first shutout since 2014, was an encouraging first step. Senior running back Damien Taylor, a Troy commit, led the way with 150 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Both of County's quarterbacks, sophomore Brax Garrison and senior Connor White, added a rushing touchdown of their own.

County coach Jay Todd said the adage "If you have two quarterbacks, then you don't have one" is sometimes true, but not for his team.

"It's not something we do out of necessity; it's just something that we do to honor those guys and the way that they prepare," Todd said. "Both guys have earned the opportunity to play."

Against Bryant, three receivers — Cedric Williams, Gavin Gardner and Christian Davis — led the the team with three catches apiece.

But despite having two reliable quarterbacks and several receiving options, the Wildcats' offense runs through Taylor, who rushed for 191 yards in County's loss to Hillcrest a year ago.

Hillcrest coach Sam Adams said his front six are the strength of his defense, which held Homewood to 55 rushing yards last week, but he added that they'll need to tackle well because Taylor is most dangerous after contact.

"That guy's a really freakin' good player, man," Adams said. "He's every bit good enough to play [at Troy] and probably good enough to play somewhere a little larger than that. He's a special player."

On the opposite sideline, there's no doubt about the centerpiece of the Patriots' offense. It's sophomore quarterback Ethan Crawford, who accounted for five total touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in last week's win at Homewood.

Crawford's first start was the road win at Tuscaloosa County last year. Since then, Adams said he's become more consistent and put on about 15 pounds. He now measures 6 feet tall and 185 pounds.

"He wanted to make a point to become a lot more well-rounded and be a better decision-maker and be able to throw on time a lot better than he did last year," Adams said. "Truth be told, he can play a lot better than he did in the first game. We left some points out there on the field, and he knows that."

The Patriots scored on passing plays on 35, 56 and 82 yards last week and added a late 80-yard rushing touchdown. Some of their success was due to receivers breaking tackles in space; others were from Crawford extending plays and finding someone open downfield.

"[Crawford's] eyes are constantly downfield and he does an outstanding job of finding somebody down the field in a situation where they can make a play," Todd said. "... I mean, the guy drops dimes."

Both coaches praised their players' responses to disappointing seasons last year. Todd said he can see their mindsets changing as they understand what it takes to be successful. Adams sent a tweet before the season opener telling Hillcrest fans, "Y'all are gonna love this team."

"These guys play with just an immense amount of joy and energy," Adams said. "... I've heard them several times start to talk about setting a new standard and returning to the success we had here for several years up until last year."

Kickoff between the Wildcats and Patriots is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday night. Check tide1009.com for coverage of that game and others in the area, and tune in to Tide 100.9 from 6-9 p.m. and 10-11 p.m. for updates during and after the games.