November 29, 2012 9:53:18 AM
REFORM, Ala. -- When the season began, Pickens County High School football coach Patrick Plott knew Marion County would be the measuring stick for the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 1A ranks this season.
Plott was dead on with that prediction.
Ranked as the state's top team this season, defending state champion Marion County is the last hurdle Pickens County needs to clear to reach the state championship.
The teams will play for the Class 1A North State title at 7 p.m. Friday in Guin, Ala.
"This is the biggest challenge of our season," Pickens County senior running back Jermarcus Brown said. "Most of us have waited our whole lives to play a game like this."
Pickens County (11-2) and Marion County (12-1) had the chance to create a rivalry when the AHSAA realigned and placed each school in Region 5. Marion County won the regular-season meeting, 45-27 on Oct. 19 in Reform, Ala.
Since the final seconds of that game, Pickens County players have been longing for the rematch.
"We didn't play well that night," Plott said. "We didn't make tackles. We weren't fundamentally sound. Even when you lose a ballgame, you want to know you gave a team everything that you have got. That is what made that loss so disappointing. It was a big contest and we didn't respond. Even though this is a tremendous challenge, we look forward to having another opportunity."
A season ago, Pickens County had a storybook season, compiling an 11-2 record. In Plott's first season of his second stint as head coach at the school, the Tornadoes had all the answers most nights. Pickens County relied on a high-octane offense to outscore most of its opponents.
The game plan held up until the third round of the playoffs, where Pickens County dropped a 38-36 decision to Sweet Water.
"The kids weren't satisfied with just making the playoffs," Plott said. "The goal they set for this season was the state championship. We came close last year, and the kids knew how much hard work when in to getting to that point. We had to do some things a little bit better. That has been the focus of our entire season - trying to play the perfect game."
Pickens County made a major change on defense this season. After looking to the offense to lead the way in 2011, Plott and the Tornadoes knew the defense would have to become more physical and more dominant if the team wanted to play for a state title.
"I think we have been a little hungrier on defense this season," Pickens County junior linebacker Chris Hill said. "We have a lot of confidence that we are going to score points anytime we play. That means it is up to us on defense to do our job. We feel like if we play our best, we can play with anybody."
Pickens County is allowing 14 points per game. The Tornadoes have five shutouts, including two in postseason play. Marion County scored roughly 25 percent of the points the Tornadoes have given up all season.
"We had some new faces on defense and they really adapted," Plott said. "We also asked a couple of players to play new positions. Everybody gets caught up in the offensive numbers and they don't realize how well our defense has competed.
"The big games are won playing fundamentally sound defense, not turning the ball over and forcing some turnovers yourself."
Pickens County had not allowed any points in the playoffs until a 53-32 victory against Berry in the third round of the playoffs. Granted, the Tornadoes allowed 20 fourth-quarter points in that victory. Pickens County led 46-12 at halftime.
"When the line blocks well, I know it is going to be a big night," Brown said. "We had a lot of confidence from the first possession of the game."
Brown ran for 111 yards and five touchdowns against Berry. Both of Brown's five-touchdown games this season have come against Berry. Brown scored on the Tornadoes' first two possessions. Devonte Simon followed with a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown to put the game away early.
Pickens County will have to work much harder Friday night.
"We have started fast all season," Plott said. "That will be very important. The kids will be looking for something good to happen to give them some confidence. We have stressed they have worked hard and deserve to be in this position. A lot of hard work has gotten us to this point. Playing the game is the fun part."