November 4, 2012 1:09:37 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
GRENADA -- Columbus High School football coach Tony Stanford breathed a deep sigh of relief and then smiled like a proud father.
"We have worked so hard and been so close," Stanford said. "Each year, we have been on the doorstep of the playoffs. We have been right there and at the end something has gone wrong at the last hour. The kids have deserved this for so long."
Columbus was again at the doorstep of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A playoffs Friday night. This time, Quan Latham opened that door and helped carry his Falcons through.
Latham ran for 149 second-half yards and the Falcons ran away from Grenada 41-21 in the Class 6A, Region 1 regular-season finale before a capacity crowd at Charger Stadium on Senior Night. With the victory, Columbus will advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Columbus senior Jimmy Cockrell has done it all this season. He has played running back, wide receiver, defensive back and linebacker. He was overcome with emotion when he knew he would get a chance to play in the playoff in his final season as a Falcon.
"It has been so hard to get to this point, I don't know what to say," Cockrell said. "I am at a loss for words. This feels so good. We have been right there and it has not happened for us. (Making the playoffs) has been one of the hardest things I have ever done involving sports. It feels quite unreal at this moment."
For a second straight season, Columbus finished the regular season at 7-4 and 4-3 in the region. If you swap last season's loss to Louisville with this season's loss to West Point, the resume is identical. Inside the region, Columbus lost to South Panola, Southaven, and Olive Branch.
Columbus will open the playoffs Friday at Class 6A, Region 2 champion Madison Central (8-3, 7-0).
Stanford has been an assistant or head coach at Columbus for each of the past five seasons. He remembers the Falcons finishing 1-10 in the first season in 2008.
"There has been a lot of heartache and a lot of misery," Stanford said. "We have come a long way. The goal was to build a championship contender. There is no reason we can't win here. I never could have imagined it would be this hard to work our way into the playoffs. The kids always believed. They have always kept working hard. You have to have a talented team but you also have to have a little bit of fortune. It finally all fell into place tonight."
While things did fall in place, it took a while. Grenada (4-7, 3-4) began the night with playoff hopes and was determined not to let them go without a fight. The Falcons hadn't given up more than three offensive touchdowns in a game this season. The Chargers had that many with 8 minutes, 31 seconds left before halftime.
Breaking the mold of all of Columbus' region games this season, the teams played an offensive shootout in the first 24 minutes and were deadlocked at 21 at halftime.
"I think there was some butterflies on our part," Cockrell said. "We knew the whole season was riding on this game. We have been here before and it got away from us. I thought we came out tight. At halftime, we talked about playing our brand of defense. We knew it was right there in front of us and we had to take it."
Columbus' defense finally turned the corner. The Falcons allowed 82 yards in the second half, with more than half of those coming on a desperation drive in the closing seconds. Columbus forced four turnovers, including a huge fumble recovery by Corey Brown with the teams tied late in the third quarter.
On offense, Columbus looked for one more wrinkle. That wrinkle came in the form of Latham, who had missed the past few weeks with an ankle injury. Also a two-way starter for the Falcons, Latham took matters into his hands in the fourth quarter. After four rushes for 1 yard in the first half, Latham had 19 rushes for 149 yards in the final half.
"I am not an every-down back, so my workload was a little surprising," Latham said. "It felt really great to be back out there and to be able to help my team. The playoffs were a goal we set at the end of last season. We knew we had that capability. In the second half, we realized our potential."
Columbus finished with a season-best 374 yards of offense and scored a season-best 41 points.
"It was the ground-and-pound there in the second half," Stanford said. "The first half was strange. It was not the type of game we normally play. I think the kids felt a little bit of nervousness being on the big stage. When you have tried to do this in the past and failed, it puts doubt in your mind."
That doubt only intensified when Grenada hit a 69-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game. Columbus trailed 13-7 and 21-14 before Cockrell changed the game with 54-yard interception return for touchdown late in the first half.
"You are not going to keep our defense down all night," Cockrell said. "Sooner or later, the big play is coming."
In the second half, Martavious McKinney, Jalen Stewart, and Brown led the way with big defensive plays.
Columbus took the lead for good with 11:18 remaining on a 3-yard run by Trace Lee. Columbus moved that possession 73 yards on eight plays. Minutes later, Latham had five straight rushes on a 62-yard drive. Iziah Jones capped that drive with a 4-yard run. Latham turned out the lights with a 67-yard touchdown run with one minute left.
"Quan gave us such a big lift emotionally," Cockrell said. "He gives us one more offensive weapon as we go into the playoffs. That is what we really needed to have a chance. I am glad he is back. I am really glad we finally have this chance."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter