Friends or not, Jeff Fitzgerald and Matt Middleton were destined to coach against one another.
Fitzgerald and Middleton forged a friendship at ULM when Fitzgerald was a linebacker and Middleton took summer courses in the late ‘90s, and they’ve been bumping into each other ever since, no matter the level of competition. Each was fascinated and borderline obsessed with football, as Middleton chased offensive coaching aspirations while Fitzgerald found his niche on defense.
Middleton climbed the ranks to offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas at Monticello in 2008, where he led UAM’s offense to second in the nation in total offense. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald ascended to defensive coordinator at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where he eventually earned enough credentials to land the head-coaching gig at Ouachita down the road. But Fitzgerald hasn’t forgotten about those classic head-to-head matchups with his old friend.
“He used to get the better of me,” Fitzgerald said. “I won’t say whether or not that changes this Friday.”
In the head-to-head matchups, Arkansas-Monticello defeated Southeastern, 24-20, in 2011 but Southeastern won a 41-35 shootout the following year. Those contests were anything but a breeze for Middleton.
“He used to create a ton of mismatches back in the day, and when you watch Ouachita, he does the same thing today,” Middleton said.
Friday night Middleton and Fitzgerald’s paths will cross once more at the start of District 2-5A play. Middleton leads his (5-0) Chiefs to take on a (3-2) Ouachita squad that’s coming off of a 35-26 road victory against previously undefeated Bastrop.
And it’s no secret what either team wants to do. Ouachita wants to spread it around and use its speed, while West Ouachita wants to roll up its sleeves and pound the ball until they’re blue in the face.
Fitzgerald knows the key to victory Friday night will be stopping the run, as West Ouachita tailback Tobias Owens, quarterback Brendon Crawford and running back Alfred Cole have eclipsed the 100-yard mark on separate occasions this year. Heck, they each eclipsed those marks in the same game too.
“This will be a tough challenge to start district just because of how well they run the football,” Fitzgerald said.
The challenge for the Chiefs will be winning the turnover battle and limiting explosive plays in the run game from Ouachita tailback Chaunzavia Lewis. Bastrop and Union can attest that’s easier said than done.
Against Union, the Lions forced five turnovers, and in last week’s win against the Rams, Carl Glass forced a fumble, while his brother, Carmycah Glass, recorded a pick six and Cayle Wheeler and Jaylen Kincaid picked off passes.
In the last three games, the Lions have forced 11 turnovers.
“We’re taking good care of the football right now, and when you’re on the plus side of the turnover margin, it’s a huge deal,” Fitzgerald said.
The Chiefs aren’t slacking in that department either. Middleton took over the defense and switched to a 4-3 scheme, but that’s not the only change he’s made.
“We are taking a lot more chances than we did a year ago,” Middleton said. “We know that’s what it takes for us to be successful are the turnovers. We’re not athletic enough to sit back and bend, don’t break. So we’ve had to take some more chances defensively, and the kids have responded to that.”
Though the Chiefs have yet to face a 5A team this season, West Ouachita has allowed just 12 points per contest in its 5-0 start to the season. Ouachita has been equally as impressive on that side of the ball with 21 points allowed per contest.
West Ouachita is making a big step up in competition Friday night in the Lions’ backyard. With a perfect record coming in, the Chiefs will be confident they can hang with the big boys.