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Cougars try to learn 'Dogs' playoff tricks

November 19, 2004|by MARK KELLER

keller@herald-mail.com

A year ago, the Martinsburg and Jefferson football teams were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Martinsburg was embarking on a playoff ride that ended in the West Virginia Class AAA state title game.

Jefferson had completed a 2-7 season that became an 0-9 mark when it was discovered the Cougars had used an ineligible player during the course of the year.

The possibility that the two teams would square off in a playoff game this year - or any year, given Jefferson's past - seemed remote, at best.

Yet that's exactly what the teams will do when the Bulldogs play host to the Cougars in a state quarterfinal game tonight at Cobourn Field.

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Martinsburg (10-1) has become the most consistent team in the Tri-State area, qualifying for the postseason for the seventh consecutive year.

Jefferson (8-3), meanwhile, is in the playoffs for the first time since 1992, which was also the last time the Cougars finished a season with a winning record.

"They've been there, we're trying to get there, that's the biggest difference in these teams," Jefferson coach Richard Mills said. "(Martinsburg) knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. They know what's going on."

In the eyes of Martinsburg coach David Walker, however, what Jefferson doesn't know could hurt the Bulldogs. He said the Cougars, who were not expected to be in this position this season, could give the Bulldogs trouble if they adopt a "nothing to lose" attitude.

"That definitely could be a danger for us, plus they're a very talented team," Walker said. "It doesn't surprise me that they're winning games. I think they just needed the right person at the helm and now they have that. I think they're better than when we played them the first time."

The first time was on Oct. 15, a game won by Martinsburg, 35-21. But both coaches pointed to games weeks earlier as the defining moments of their seasons and helped push them through the end of the season and into the playoffs.

For the Cougars, the key moment was three weeks earlier when they beat University - a perennial playoff team - at home, 14-7.

"That game gave us credence that we were doing something right," Mills said. "(University) was a program that has been established and beating them showed us that we were definitely on the right trail."

The Bulldogs' moment of zen came two weeks prior to the first Jefferson game when their 27-game regular-season winning streak ended in a 31-28 loss at Bluefield.

For Martinsburg, the loss released some of the pressure associated with the winning streak and showed people that the Bulldogs, in fact, were human.

"I told them after that game that now they can just concentrate on becoming better players and not worry about stuff that people are talking about," Walker said. "It made us a better team. Winning is a precious thing and you have to work hard to win. That game caused us to look at things a lot differently."

While Jefferson has surprised many in the state this season, Mills is sure the Cougars will not be sneaking up on any team while they are still alive in the playoffs.

"We were probably an unknown factor to many teams because we've been out of the playoffs for so long," Mills said. "I don't think we'll surprise Martinsburg."

Walker said he and his players saw enough from the Cougars in their first meeting to know that they cannot be taken lightly.

"They played close enough to us and had a chance to win the game," Walker said. "That proved a point to our guys that we can't just show up and expect to beat Jefferson.

"I think they realize that Jefferson is not what it used to be."

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