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Deep Postseason Runs Nothing New For Coach Keith Gardner + Alto

The Alto Yellowjackets face Mart on Friday in Athens for the Class A Division I Region III championship. (Ronnie Sartors, ETSN.fm)

The town of Alto’s population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, is 1,190. And usually towns of this size are all abuzz when its football teams are still alive come December.

That’s not the case for Alto, whose Yellowjackets are expected to contend for state championships on a yearly basis, which makes big playoff wins like the ‘Jackets got last week seem like … well, no big deal.

“Well you (enjoy it) for about 15 minutes,” said Alto coach Keith Gardner, who’s in his eighth season at Alto. “Then you get in the dressing room, load the bus and go home, then start thinking about the next week’s opponent. We let the kids enjoy it over the weekend, but come Monday morning it’s time to go back to work.”

Alto posted a 108-20 during the 1990s, and since Gardner arrived in 2005 the ‘Jackets are 80-18 with state titles in ’06 and ’07.

Needless to say, Alto has been involved in several big games over the last two decades. The Yellowjackets (11-2) have another one this Friday night in Athens when Alto squares off against another perennial power Mart (11-2) in the Class A Division I Region III championship.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Gardner said. “They’re a perennial playoff team and their tradition is rich. It’s very similar to what we have here in Alto. We know we have to come with our best game when we roll into Athens on Friday night.”

When Alto faces Mart, the ‘Jackets will bring a potent 1-2 combination at quarterback and running back with them. Junior Zac Sturns has taken over full-time QB duties after sharing snaps early with fellow junior Jacolby Whitaker, who is now firmly entrenched at running back.

The decision to have both on the field at the same time has certainly paid dividends.

Sturns, who transferred from Rusk last spring, has passed for 878 yards and 10 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,160 and 12 TDs. Whitaker, meanwhile, has rushed for 2,443 yards and 34 touchdowns.

“Both are really good athletes, and both have been able to come in and help our team move the football,” Gardner said. “When he found out Zac could throw the football, and he can also run it really well, it was a perfect fit. It allowed us to have both of them out there at the same time.

“He’s done a good job reading the secondary coverages really well, and he runs the football extremely well.”

Whitaker has taken a liking to the new role, rushing for 574 yards in Alto’s three playoff wins.

“With Zac being back there, it takes some of the pressure of (Whitaker),” Gardner said. “Teams aren’t lined up to stop him at quarterback anymore. He’s been able to jump right in and adjust to the changes and get after it.”

The winner of Friday’s game will face either Shiner or Mason in the state semifinals next week.

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