By GREG MENGELT
NEW ALBANY —
It has been 307 days since both New Albany and Providence were on a football field.
Both teams’ seasons ended in an ugly way in their respective sectionals — Providence with a 40-0 loss to Paoli and the Bulldogs in a 62-35 defeat at the hands of rival Jeffersonville.
Needless to say, both teams are looking forward to get started in 2013.
“There’s nothing like the first game of the season, no matter who it is,” New Albany senior running back Tuwan Payton said. “We’re tired of hitting each other. We’re ready for somebody else.”
“Just getting out on the football field is what we want to do,” Providence coach Larry Denison said. “We want to show that we’ve improved a lot from last year.”
The intensity of opening day will be intensified by the fact that it also is rivalry game, making it the News and Tribune Game of the Week.
Many of the Providence players are from New Albany, and while the two sides profess to respect each other, neither likes the other team much.
“It’s the first game of the year, so it’s exciting,” New Albany coach Charlie Fields said. “Throw on top of it that it’s a rivalry game, there’s extra juice to it. I think everyone’s looking forward to getting back on the football field.”
“We’re all itching to play New Albany,” Providence senior linebacker Tony Corrao said. “It should be al great game.”
Denison has strong ties to the Providence-New Albany rivalry. His father went to New Albany and his mother attended Providence. Their first date was a blind date at a New Albany-Providence football game.
“The rivalry means so much,” he said.
Despite New Albany’s victory over the Pioneers a year ago, Providence has won seven of the last nine games in the series.
“We have the utmost respect for Providence,” Fields said. “They’re born with ‘Beat New Albany’ pacifiers in their cribs. We appreciate the challenge we have with them.”
Providence is coming off a 3-7 season in which it lost six of its last seven games. The Pioneers are expected to be one of the most improved teams in Southern Indiana. They are looking forward to showing how much better they’ve gotten starting tonight.
“It think it’s a big deal for all of us,” Corrao said. “We all have a chip on our shoulder. We all want to show how much better we can be. We have 20 seniors on our team. We know we can play well together. We just want to be a lot better than last year.”
“Obviously, last year is not how we wanted to finish,” Denison said. “We didn’t have very many seniors. Due to injuries, by the end of the season, we really only had two seniors that were starting. We were very young and we played a very tough schedule, too. It really tested us. Hopefully, it’s made us stronger for this year. All those young guys who were thrown into the fire, we expect them to be ready this year.”
New Albany was 5-5 a year ago, which was a four-game improvement from 2011. The Bulldogs are eager to make the next step to championship contenders.
“We have a lot of returning starters and we hope that leads to some success,” Fields said. “We have some nice experience and we hope to show what we can do.”
“New Albany is a very, very good team,” Denison said. “We saw them on film in the scrimmage against Seymour and they’re very impressive. They’re very powerful, very quick.”
If Providence is going to get off to a more successful start than a year ago, it will have to find a way to stop Payton. A year ago as a junior, he had 232 yards on the ground and scored from 28, 70 and 74 yards out in the Bulldogs’ 28-15 triumph over the Pioneers.
“We’ve really been keying on him,” Corrao said of Payton. “He’s a great player. We’re going to try to stop him as well as we can.”
“It’s going to be tough,” Denison said of stopping Payton. “He’s such a special athlete. They have other guys that are just as explosive. If you focus on him too much, you’re setting yourself up all-around. You can’t just focus on one guy.”
Payton knows that he will be the main focus of the Pioneer defense.
“I know they’re coming,” he said. “The question is: Can they stop it? I’m going to go hard and I know they’re going to come hard, so it should be a fun game.”
Payton said the Bulldogs moving up to Class 6A has only motivated them and “this is the year” Columbus East’s decade-long Hoosier Hills Conference winning streak comes to an end.
But, in the present, there’s only one thing on New Albany’s mind.
“Right now,” Payton said, “we only have one goal. We’re going to beat Providence.”