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January 19, 2012
Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
The old clich?hat familiarity breeds contempt may need to add one more emotion:
Earlier this month at the U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio, rivalries were put aside and an honest opinion was offered on national powers Tulsa (Okla.) Union and Hoover (Ala.) High by some unlikely observers: players from Jenks (Okla.) High and Hoover (Ala.) Spain Park.
"The kids at Hoover are dedicated," Spain Park quarterback Nick Mullens said. "They have a lot of grit and are really well coached.
"I think what separated them from us this season is all their kids were bought in. Coach (Josh) Niblett has everyone on the same page; our team never had that relationship. We never played a complete game all year."
Spain Park is winless in its last 11 contests against Hoover, including three playoff losses. It hoped last fall would be its year as it actually had more Division I prospects.
But in the second game of the season, Spain Park lost, 20-0. It finished 5-6. Hoover went 13-2, lost by one in the state final, and ended the year nationally ranked in the RivalsHigh 100.
In Oklahoma, Jenks had its season ended by Union for the fourth straight year; this time it came in a series of three consecutive one-point Union playoff victories.
Receiver Jordan Smallwood was none-too-happy with coming up short but acknowledged that great teams win the close games.
"You have to hand it to them," he said. "You can say they got lucky, sure, but that is an excuse. They had to make plays to win all those games."
Union has won four straight state titles and seven of the last eight games against Jenks.
It is a trend that Smallwood says he hopes his class can put an end to.
"We have to work harder," he said. "Not just the two weeks we play them but every week. Every day really.
"We really have to be a little more like them; come together as a team."
Mullens had a similar feeling about his team and what it needs to do.
"I think we have a lot of similar traits (to Hoover) in us," he said. "Coach (Chip) Lindsey is bringing us together and I think we can start to really think about knocking them off."
The closest that the Jaguars had come to beating Hoover was in 2009, when it led 21-0 at halftime only to see the lead evaporate and the game end on a last-minute field goal, 24-21.
Due to a new region alignment in Alabama, the two will not be in Region 6 with each other. The only potential match-up now would come in the postseason.
"We aren't too happy that we don't get to play them in the regular season," Mullens said. "By playoffs though we may be at a better point in our season to take them down."
Mullens, who checked in at 6-foot-1 and 174 pounds at the combine, said his recruiting has started to pick up. But he thinks if he can work his way up to 190 pounds, more teams will come in on him.
He also believes a solid season will lead to more suitors for his talents.
"If we can make a run it would be good," he said. "I think college coaches want a winner. If we can get through Hoover it would be good, too."
At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Smallwood figures to be a factor in the rise of Jenks this season.
"I want to be a leader this year," he said. "As a senior, this is my team, and I want to be one of those guys that the young guys look at."
Smallwood was just a freshman the last time Jenks defeated Union, a 27-25 game early in 2009, but he realizes that this is an important season for perception of his school.
"There are some rumblings that it isn't Jenks and Union in our state right now," he said. "People are saying it is Union's state and we are battling with Broken Arrow [(Okla.) High] for second and I am not with that.
"I mean Broken Arrow is stepping up their game and maybe they are fighting to get up with us, but if people think we have slipped down, that has to change."
For Spain Park and Jenks, that change can start with Mullens and Smallwood.