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Graves County battling to get better

Race Richards (33) picks up yards to move Graves County down the field in its opening drive that resulted in the Eagles' lone score against Paducah Tilghman, 41-7. Richards, a sophomore, is currently second in receiving with 218 yards off 15 receptions.

JAIME PRINCE/Special to the Messenger

By ERIC WALKER ewalker@mayfield-messenger.com

Hosting tonight's 26th "Battle of the Birds," Graves County knows its battle isn't just with crosstown rival Mayfield. It is also fighting to rebound from a 1-3 start to the season.

So while preparing for the Cardinals, Eagle head coach Lance Gregory said his team's focus has also been internal.

"Coach (Joe) Morris, I have the utmost respect for him and his program. But honestly, we've got to focus on us and fixing us and getting better," he said. "If we go out and aren't focused, Friday could be a long night. But if we prepare and come together and play well, we'll let the scoreboard take care of itself."

Graves County knew this year would feature some rebuilding after big personnel losses last year. But the Eagles now face additional work dealing with several injuries sustained over the past week.

Senior receiver Drew Cooper will miss his second straight game and leading rusher Tavis Brown has also been sidelined tonight, both due to concussions. Fellow DB Riley Thompson is questionable after sustaining an abdominal muscle strain, but the big hit was to senior Jacob Savage.

Savage, a physical receiver who had also claimed kicking duties, will miss the remainder of the season with a torn MCL and meniscus. It has led to a recurring theme for Graves to try and overcome another round of adversity and, according to Gregory, some growing negativity.

"It's life. It's football," he said of his message to the team. "Your character is revealed when you face some adversity. We talked about that there's going to be negativity. People who are successful can ignore the distractions and focus on getting better."

Coaches are continuing to try and develop depth from a well of freshmen and sophomores and reinforce the "next man up" mentality to be prepared at a moment's notice to potentially step into a starting role.

"That was the main thing after that was to keep fighting," he said of addressing the team following last week's 41-7 loss to Paducah Tilghman. "We've got a district schedule to focus on and that's what it's all about; just try to play well in the district and get yourself in a good position in the playoffs."

Doing so isn't outside the realm of possibility. In 2010, the then-6A Eagles opened 1-4 then closed out 5-2 and reached the second round of the playoffs. And in 2014, Graves went 10-0 after another 1-3 start and eventually reached the state 5A championship.

Gregory said the common denominator of those teams was the coaches and players didn't allow adversity to wear their selves down, but actually strengthen them.

"They became stronger because of the adversity," he recalled. "We lost a few ballgames, but it's not the end of the world. There's still a lot of season left. I've got to do a better job getting our guys on the same page and focused in the right direction."

Externally, the direction points to the Cardinals, who are 4-0 following last week's 51-21 game at McCracken County. Junior quarterback Jayden Stinson threw for 336 yards and six touchdowns to five different receivers for a 44-7 third quarter lead.

With its numerous offensive weapons, defensively Mayfield has limited opponents' own offensive options. Gregory said having success on first and third downs is key.

Against Tilghman in their opening drive, the Eagles started with back-to-back first downs, converted two third downs and set up first-and-goal at the 9-yard line after a Ryan Mathis 15-yard pass to sophomore Race Richards.

Following a big defensive stand on Tilghman's first series and leading 7-0, Graves moved 48 yards behind four first downs out of five plays, but resulted in a missed 39-yard field goal attempt and the team struggled the rest of the game.

"We've got to get ourselves in good second-down situations. It's been a problem of ours," he said. "Execution is the big thing and making sure everybody is doing their job."