November 30, 2012 2:32:55 PM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
REFORM, Ala. -- When the final seconds ticked off in last season's third-round playoff loss to Sweet Water, the Pickens County High School players vowed to return.
The Tornadoes already have done better this season. Pickens County will take on defending state champion Marion County in the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 1A semifinals at 7 tonight in Guin, Ala.
"There was a lot of disappointment in how last season ended," Pickens County coach Patrick Plott said. "This was the first year I was back, so we were really learning things on the fly. There was a hunger. The kids worked really hard to have a great season.
"After the year was over, the seniors made sure we got back into the weight room and worked even harder for this season. The results have shown on the field."
The only Class 1A, Region 5 loss Pickens County (11-2) suffered was a 45-27 setback to Marion County. Pickens County also lost to Gordo 14-13.
"The Gordo loss was a wake-up call," Pickens County running back Jermarcus Brown said. "We realized we couldn't take anything for granted. We knew we had to work even harder once we got into the playoffs."
The hard work has paid off. Pickens County has defeated Falkville (63-0), Cedar Bluff (34-0), and Berry (53-32) to reach the semifinals.
Brown has followed in the footsteps of former Pickens County standout running back De'Marko Hall by rushing for more than 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns this season. In the third-round playoff victory, Brown had his second five-touchdown rushing performance against the Wildcats. Last season, Hall set the school record for touchdowns in a season.
"My goal at the beginning of the year was 2,000 yards," Brown said. "The credit goes to a great offensive line. They have made my job easy. Each week, I try to score a couple of touchdowns because that always set the tone on offense."
Pickens County has been known for its quick starts. Striking fast will be essential tonight when the Tornadoes try to pull the upset.
"We have been very good the first couple of quarters in the playoffs," Plott said. "That tells you are dealing with a team with good mental focus. The seniors have done a great job this year of making sure the team is never too high or too low. Starting quick and taking advantage of opportunities are both very important when you try to win a playoff game on the road."
Marion County breezed to the Region 5 championship with seven-straight victories. The lone loss was a 21-17 setback to Red Bay in the final game of the regular season. In the playoffs, Marion County has defeated Meek (83-6), R.A. Hubbard (47-20), and Hubbertville (41-22).
"The seniors have a really great chance to go out with some nice history," said Marion County coach Rusty Funk, a former head coach at Columbus High. "When you get to this point, it is up to playing perfect football. The first game has little bearing on this one. We were able to force some turnovers and took advantage of them. Again, we will have to be opportunistic."
Last season, Marion County (14-1) beat Linden 23-12 to win the Class 1A state championship. The playoff path was narrower last season as the Wildcats won by four, 20, 21, and 21 points before the finals.
Senior Justin Sanders has run for 1,120 yards and 15 touchdowns. Three other Wildcats have better than 850 yards. Senior quarterback Sean Wallace has thrown for 1,097 yards, with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Brantley and McIntosh will meet in the other semifinal. The winners will meet at 3 p.m. Thursday in Auburn, Ala., for the state championship.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter