Dec. 13, 2013 @ 12:48 AM

Playing with explosives is a health hazard.

Crest High School coach Mark Barnes will take his chances with that when his Shelby-based Chargers go against the extremely potent Southern Spartans in the 3-AA championship game at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem on Saturday (7 p.m., Time Warner Cable channel 520).

“Southern’s going to win if we give them too many big plays,” Barnes said. “We have to eliminate big plays. If we give those up, then we’re probably going to get beat.”

Southern (13-2) has put 704 points on the scoreboard this season. The Spartans have scored 101 touchdowns by averaging 261.1 yards through the air and 238.3 yards on the ground.

If there’s a chink in the Spartans’ armor, it’s been their penchant for surrendering points to their opponents.

Crest (14-1) is averaging 266.9 yards per contest. The run game has been the Chargers’ bread and butter, but Barnes makes it sound like Southern could cause some problems for his team.

“They’re a talented group. Defensively, they have a mixture of size and speed, which obviously concerns us a little bit,” Barnes said. But “we’re not going to be intimidated by Southern Durham. We’ve played good football teams. We will respect the fact that they’ve got tremendous skill players, yes, and we know they can run. Be we can run! We’ve been involved in those type of games. We’re not going to be slow by any stretch of the imagination, now.”

Southern played on the 4-A level last year. During the offseason, the state’s high schools were reclassified based on the sizes of their student bodies and Southern moved to the newly created Big Eight 3-A Conference.

Southern emerged as the inaugural champion of the Big Eight, outdoing powerful programs including Orange, Cardinal Gibbons, Northwood and Chapel Hill — all playoff qualifiers this fall.

The preseason thinking was that Southern coming from the 4-A level would have a leg up on 3-A programs. Southern coach Adrian Jones didn’t buy that then, and Barnes doesn’t subscribe to that now.

In and around Durham and Orange counties this season, some of the Big Eight teams were better than most of the 4-A PAC-6 squads.

In the western part of the state, in places like Cleveland County where Crest is located, folks are real serious about their football, which is why 2-A Shelby High School has a title shot this weekend, Barnes said.

Barnes said all North Carolina high school classifications are more or less the same except for the 4-AA schools that have such huge enrollments that players don’t have to play on both sides of the ball. It’s harder to compete against players chosen from a wider talent pool who can stay fresher during games, Barnes explained.

When 3-A Crest and 2-A Shelby play each year, it’s a big deal. Forget the classifications, Barnes said.

“You lose to Shelby in our community, it’s not a black eye,” Barnes said. “If we beat them every year, we’re happy. I can tell you that right now.

“And any 3-A team that wants to walk in to Shelby’s stadium and play every year, all I can tell you is, ‘Good luck,’ if you’ve got to do it every year,” Barnes continued. “There are no As in our county.”

That’s how it was after the Aug. 30 season opener when Southern lost 29-24 to former PAC-6 rival Hillside at Durham County Memorial Stadium.

Southern coach Adrian Jones would tell anybody that the Spartans have gotten so much better since then, and Barnes is a believer, too.

“I can tell you they’re fast, and they’re explosive offensively, obviously. They remind us a lot of Shelby,” Barnes said.

Both Southern and Shelby have dual-threat quarterbacks with solid running backs at their disposal and playmakers on the perimeter.

“They’ll beat a lot of 3-A teams that we play right now,” Barnes said about Shelby. “And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. They’re the closest thing, actually, that we’ve seen to Southern Durham in the year. They’re the team that throws the ball and has those type of athletes that challenges you speed-wise.”