October 31, 2012 10:19:16 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
MACON -- The motivations have swirled around the Noxubee County High School football team all season.
Now it's time for the talk to end and for the Tigers to deliver.
That's the mind-set coach Tyrone Shorter and his Tigers (11-0) will take to the field at 7 p.m. Friday when they take on Shannon (3-7) in the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A North State playoffs.
"I am ready, and I feel like we have the team this year," Shorter said. "I couldn't wait for the playoffs to start, and our kids couldn't wait, either. Our kids have this motto: Five more. We said in the spring and at the beginning of the year that we wanted to play for three championships. We played in one, and we are focusing on getting to that North State game and going on and winning state, but we know it is going to be tough. The road is going to be challenging."
Games against perennial state powers Lafayette and Itawamba Agricultural loom in the next few weeks, but Shorter and his players know that kind of thinking is dangerous. Last season, Noxubee County was considered one of the top teams in the North, but it stumbled in the second round and was eliminated by Amory.
That loss, along with ones to Lafayette and Itawamba AHS have dogged Noxubee County seniors for the past few years. Now that group of 23 leaders is ready to begin a drive for five and the school's second state championship.
"This year we feel better about making it farther than we did last year," Bradley said. "This Friday, we're going to come out and hit you hard, just like we did everybody else in the regular season. We are still on that mission to make it to Jackson."
Unfortunately, Bradley, a senior defensive lineman and one of the leaders on defense, won't play Friday. Shorter said Bradley won't dress out due to sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee he suffered against Louisville in the next-to-last regular-season game. He didn't play last week against Caledonia, and he feels he will be ready to return for the second week of the playoffs.
Bradley believes the Tigers still can improve on the pass coverage. He knows teams will try to test the Tigers through the air, so he is eager to get back on the field to limit the time quarterbacks have to think about beating the Tigers in the passing game.
Like his classmates, Bradley has plenty of motivation. As a freshman, Noxubee County led Itawamba Agricultural at halftime before losing. The next season, Lafayette shut out Noxubee County. The loss to Amory in 2011 is still fresh in the mind of Bradley and the other seniors.
Bradley vows this year will be different.
"Every time I think about the playoff losses when we could have been in Jackson, it really burns me up," Bradley said. "That is the kind of intensity I have in my heart. I have had a lot of motivation since the first week against Starkville. I felt no respect was given to Noxubee. I have that same intensity in my heart. I feel we haven't gotten the respect we deserve yet. Until we get that respect, I want the team to continue to play hard football. ... We are going to put people out and knock people out until people realize Noxubee County is the best team in Mississippi."
Senior quarterback DeAngelo Ballard also feels the Tigers, who completed the school's first 11-0 regular season, have room to improve. He said the team has relied on an experienced offensive line and the running of senior Darrell Robinson to fuel the offense. He anticipates teams stacking the box and daring the Tigers to beat them with their passing game. He said Noxubee County will be up for the challenge.
"We have been waiting on this all year," Ballard said. "This spring, we came in and we worked hard and said we were going to play for three championships. We played for the district championship. Now we have to keep playing because the season isn't over. We keep playing until we play for the North State championship, and then we play for the state championship. We use that as motivation."
Ballard has looked at the playoff bracket Shorter posted in the school's field house. He acknowledges the team's road to Jackson, the site of the state title game, will be difficult. But he feels the Tigers learned a lesson from last year when they underestimated Amory and didn't fully realize they could lose to anybody.
The loss left such an impact on Ballard that it gave him nightmares that woke him up later that night and prevented him from falling back asleep. Ballard hopes a more focused Noxubee County team can deliver similar nightmares to opponents this season.
"I still don't think we are at our best, but I think we will get to the top of our game," Ballard said. "We need to open up the passing game more to help Robinson. Coach tells me the quarterback has to be the best player on the field and I have to be a leader and step up and take charge. Teams are going to stack the box, and we're going to have times when we can't run on some teams and we're going to have to throw the ball because it is going to be tough in the playoffs."
Aside from Bradley, Shorter said his team is in good health and that it appears to be mentally ready. The true test will come Friday night.
"We have been preaching to the kids that we have the physical ability and we have the talent," Shorter said. "In the playoffs, you have to be mentally prepared to play. We have talked about taking their game to another level. It has to be a higher intensity.
"We are really playing good. One good thing going into the playoffs is we haven't shown a lot of the things we can do. We are playing really great offensively and really great defensively."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.