Chasing a championship

By Staff
Mike Self, FCT Sports Editor
As a prep star at Russellville High School, Reggie Hubbard played on Golden Tiger teams in 2002 and 2003 that advanced all the way to the Super Six before falling one win short of a state championship.
Now a junior wide receiver at the University of North Alabama, Hubbard and his team are three wins away from bringing home an even bigger title.
Third-ranked UNA will host No. 14 Delta State on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., and the game will be televised regionally on CSS.
If the Lions can defeat the Statesmen for the second time in little more than a month (UNA won 17-10 at Delta State on October 21), they will advance to the national semifinals for the third time in four seasons.
Despite posting a 40-9 record under head coach Mark Hudspeth over the past four seasons, the Lions are still searching for their first national title since winning three straight from 1993-95.
"Winning a national championship would be great, but we have to take things one step at a time," said Hubbard, who caught 35 passes for 567 yards and seven touchdowns during the 2003 regular season at Russellville. "We got close to winning a state championship in high school, but we came up just a little short. I think if we stay focused and do what we do, we can make it to the national championship game and win it."
First, the Lions must successfully meet the challenge of beating a worthy opponent twice in one season.
"It's extremely tough to do that, especially against a good football team like Delta State," Hudspeth said. "It's almost like we have to win the Gulf South Conference championship twice. They'll be looking for a little revenge, but our guys have plenty of motivation and a lot to play for, too. We're hoping to take that next step toward winning a national championship."
In the first meeting between the two teams, UNA's defense held Delta State to 65 total yards and three first downs in the second half. Statesman quarterback Scott Eyster, a 2005 Harlon Hill Trophy finalist, completed just 11-of-24 pass attempts for 204 yards.
"It's almost impossible to keep a really good quarterback from completing passes," Hudspeth said. "You just have to try and limit the big plays. Really, the strength of their team is their defense. They're very tough on that side of the ball."
Thus far in 2006, UNA's offense has been equal to virtually every task. With junior quarterback A.J. Milwee directing a high-octane attack, the Lions are averaging better than 35 points and 400 yards of offense per game.
Milwee has at his disposal a talented group of wide receivers that Hudspeth calls "the best we've had here and probably the best I've ever been around."
Seniors Anthony Merritt (48 catches, 541 yards), Jason Messing (33 catches, 483 yards) and Marcus Lewis (32 catches, 366 yards) garner most of the attention, but Hubbard is one of nine different receivers to catch a touchdown pass for the Lions this season.
"We've got eight guys who can play, and we rotate them in and out pretty freely," Hudspeth said. "They're all very unselfish players, and they've been a huge part of this team going 11-0."
One might expect conflict to develop with so many mouths to feed, but Hubbard said one football is plenty to go around.
"It's great to be a part of a group of wide receivers like this," said Hubbard, who has caught six passes for 33 yards. "As far as asking for the ball, we don't even get into that. We're like a family. We hang out together, we go eat together. We're all good friends. It's nice to be part of that family atmosphere."
Hudspeth said Hubbard's contributions to the team go far beyond his modest statistics.
"Reggie's numbers might not be as good as an Anthony Merrit or a Marcus Lewis, but he's just as important to this football team," the coach said. "He's made a huge impact for us. He's a big, physical receiver, and he never busts an assignment. The best thing about Reggie is he has one more year. Next year, he'll probably get the chance to be the man like some of our other guys are right now."
Hubbard said that playing at UNA has been a good fit for him.
"Playing at Russellville really helped prepare me for this offense," he said. "The two systems are very similar because they spread the ball around a lot. The biggest difference is the speed of the game is so much faster at the college level."
Hubbard is hoping for one more drastic difference between his high school and college football experience-he doesn't want to fall short of the ultimate goal this time around.
Hudspeth said he thinks this year's team has what it takes to win a national championship.
"We hope so. This team might not be quite as strong in certain areas as some other teams we've had, but these guys are playing very well together as a group," he said. "You need a lot of things to fall into place in order to win a national championship. You have to be good, obviously, but you also need to catch a few breaks. At times in the past couple of years, we haven't got those breaks. Hopefully this year we will."

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