ATHENS —The Class 1A Division I Region III final will feature two perennial playoff powers familiar with the playoffs.
The second-ranked Mart Panthers and No. 6 Alto will square off for rights to the state semifinal round and those in attendance should be treated to some big hits and big plays.
The two powers will strap on the gear and go at it at Bruce Field on tonight with a 7:30 kickoff slated.
There are many similarities between the two teams, as both teams elect to utilize the quarterback and running back to do the majority of the rushing. Which team makes the defensive stand or forces a turnover could be the difference maker.
Mart comes into the game averaging 45 points per game and giving in to 21.5 points from the opposition.
The Yellowjackets have rung up 39.9 points per game and allowed 22.1 points to set up what should be a classic smash-mouth showdown.
Two-way players for both teams will be in the position to be difference makers as well with the running of Alto’s quarterback Zac Sturns and running back Jacolby Whitaker.
Mart in turn will rely mainly on signal caller DaNarian Thomas and back D’Marcus Cosby.
When each team does throw, each has a plethora of receivers able to go the distance at any time.
The Mart Panthers were the hands down top pick in the preseason polls and continue their trek to a hopeful fifth state football title. 2010 was the last year Mart took home the state brass after other championships in 2006, 1999 and 1969.
The Panthers (10-2) flexed their muscles with a 49-21 win over San Augustine one week ago after beating West Sabine (69-15) in the area round and drawing a first round bye with the District 12-1A Division I title.
Meanwhile, Alto was putting up a great comeback last week in Buffalo for a 35-14 win over Bosqueville, setting up one of four regional finals this weekend.
Alto’s previous playoff wins included a 35-7 over Harleton in bi-district play, followed by an exciting 35-28 win against Hull-Daisetta in an area round slug-out.
Thomas is a double-threat for the Panthers at quarterback and linebacker. Thomas scored three TDs in the San Augustine win and ran for 136 yards in the West Sabine win.
Cosby did his own fair amount of rumbling and smash-mouth running style with 245 yards and four scores (59, 89, 12, 24) in the win against West Sabine.
The Panthers defense relies on the linebacker play of Thomas and Javier Rojas as well as defensive back/wide receiver Quentin Bryant. Another key cog is FB/LB Colin Neil, an all-state linebacker as a freshman last year. Seth Toten and Bryant are the go-to guys when Thomas does go to the air.
Currently ranked No. 6, Alto is not a postseason rookie by any means with nine straight playoff appearances under head coach Keith Gardner. Alto won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
Last year was a down year by Alto standards, going 8-4 with a loss in the area finals to end the season unusually early for the ‘Jackets.
This season the offensive production has been good enough for having scored 35 points in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
The Yellowjackets’ one-two running punch of Whitaker and Sturns will carry the load as always. Whitaker has amassed more than 180 yards in the last three playoff games and scored four times in the win last week. Sturns cannot be ignored with 170-yard plus performances in each of the postseason games.
Rarely will the ‘Jackets throw, but when they do Jonathan Pope, Anfernee Black and JaVie’Ontae Mumphrey have all proven to be sure-handed breakaway threats on any play.
Defensively, linebackers Michael Taylor and Logan Smith create havoc for the opposing offense, along with steady pressure from Mumphrey coming off the defensive end.
Mumphrey had four sacks last week against Bosqueville and defensive back Joe Cruz has four interceptions in the last three playoff games.
Mart beat Alto’s league champ, San Augustine, last week 49-21 to set up the regional final with Alto (11-2). Mart defeated Bosqueville 36-7 to claim its district title.
San Augustine beat the ‘Jackets 49-42 in one district loss, the other setback for a Alto coming in a 40-20 non-league loss to Groveton.
Mart’s two loses on the year came at the hands of St. Marks (28-12) and Rogers (84-58), both in non-district play.
The winner of tonight’s game moves on to play the winner of the Shiner-Mason matchup in one of two state semifinals next week.
ON THE YEAR
Mart Panthers (10-2)Alto YellowJackets (11-2)
Mart 35, Teague 34Alto, 51, Elkhart 28
St. Marks 28, Mart 12Groveton 40, Alto 10
Mart 43, Riesel 7Alto 25, Tenaha 13
Rogers 84, Mart 58Alto 15, Frankston 7
Mart 26, Goldthwaite 20Alto 44, Trinity 14
Mart 48, Chilton 22Alto 61, Cushing 0
Mart 56, Axtell 0Alto 40, West Sabine 26
Mart 47, Leon 7Alto 36, Grapeland 12
Mart 61, Valley Mills 13San Augustine 49, Alto 42
Mart 38, Bosqueville 7Alto 45, Shelbyville 20
BYE*Alto 35, Harleton 7
*Mart 69, West Sabine 15*Alto 35, Hull-Daisetta 28
*Mart 49, San Augustine 21*Alto 35, Bosqueville 14