For the past two weeks Danny Horn’s Clay Central Volunteers have had a relatively easy road. Blowout wins against Elmore County and Beauregard gave Horn a chance to empty his bench in the second half while simultaneously putting his team atop the region standings.

In last week’s 51-6 win over Beauregard, Central held the Hornets to 121 total yards of offense. Meanwhile Elisha McNeil rushed for 72 yards and three touchdowns and four other Vols reached the end zone as Central seemingly scored at will.

It’s a different competitive environment region-wise for Central after a year in which nearly every week seemed like heavyweight fight between two contenders.

“We have a lot of teams that have moved up to 5A that were 4A. We’ve got some decent teams, but compared to last year our region was really, really tough last year,” Horn said. “We had four or five teams that were really good. I haven’t had many regions like that in my coaching career that were any harder than that.”

But Central’s trend of big early leads and emptying the bench late will almost certainly come to a screeching halt this week when Central hosts Pleasant Grove in a marquee non-region matchup that’s a rematch of last year’s 5A state championship game.

Zyquez Perryman, who Central stopped one yard short of a game-winning touchdown in the state championship game last year, is back to direct an offense that is averaging almost 40 points per game. The Spartans’ only loss came in a 29-28 season opener against Oxford, which is ranked No. 2 in class 6A.

Scouting this week’s opponent and the talent that they will put on the field brought back some lofty comparisons from earlier in Horn’s career.

“I have to go back to probably my first year at Benjamin Russell, and we were playing the Prattvilles and the Carver Montgomeries when they were really good and they signed about 10-12 people. This is kind of how Pleasant Grove looks. They’ve got size. They’ve got speed. They’re really good,” Horn said.

Horn is referencing a 2009 Prattville team that went 12-3 and lost by five points to Hoover in the 6A state championship game that year.

“They were going to be really good coming back with the players they had,” Horn said, speaking of Pleasant Grove. “And they’ve had some from other places move in there, and it’s even made them better.”

Central enters the game ranked No. 1 in the state, while that loss to Oxford dropped Pleasant Grove down to No. 4 after they started the season at No. 2.

The week five non-region game has become something of a monkey on Horn’s back since he took over prior to the 2018 season. Both years his team lost to Jasper in week five, with last year’s game being a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown that went to overtime.

Of course, Horn rallied the troops by the time the playoffs rolled around and led the Vols to state titles both of those years. So losing in week five could become something of a good omen.

“The fifth game’s been pretty tough on us,” Horn said. “I’d rather lose that and then win a state championship any time, but I’d rather win it and win the state championship too.”

No matter the final result, Horn relished playing a quality opponent.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but I think win or lose we’ve got to be better from [playing] it,” he said. “I’ve always said if you play better folks it will help you later on. This will kind of tell us where we’re at and what we need to do to try to get better. I’m looking forward to it.”

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