November 30, 2012 2:42:48 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
JACKSON -- Business as usual.
That's the mind-set of the Noxubee County High School football team as it prepares to face Greene County at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A State title at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Jackson.
Greene County football coach Johnny Ainsworth tried his best Monday to increase the size of the bull's eye on Noxubee County's back at the annual media gathering for the state title games at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Ainsworth commented that the Wildcats (10-4) would be the underdog and that they likely would have to be "wonderdogs" to keep the Tigers (15-0), the state's No. 2 team, from winning their second state crown.
The only thing Ainsworth's comment did was bring a smile to Noxubee County coach Tyrone Shorter's face.
"Greene County is a great football team. I have watched them on film," Shorter said. "We are going to have to play. They have some great athletes. I know they are thinking it is luck that they got there from talking to the coach, but to win a championship you have to have a little luck, too. They have a good football team. If they didn't they wouldn't be here."
The matchup will be a culmination of more than a year of waiting for the Tigers. Noxubee County and its 23 seniors have been waiting for another chance to play for a championship ever since a 21-20 loss to Amory in the second round of the Class 4A North State playoffs last season. The players are reminded what it takes to be a state champion every day they step into the school's fieldhouse. Once they enter the weight room area, a huge picture of the 2008 state title team and a banner with the names of all of the players greets them. All of the Tigers have used the sting of a disappointing playoff loss and comparisons to the 2008 squad as motivation.
"We set this goal during the spring that we were going to play for three championships, that we were going to go undefeated," Shorter said. "I don't think it will matter who they will pick to win, who they pick to lose, or who is the underdog. I think our kids are going to come ready to play. These guys set a goal, and they want to reach this goal.
"One good thing about this group is they don't get too hyped. They don't care about the rankings and all of that stuff. This group of kids just wants to win."
If Noxubee County needed another piece of motivation, it may have received it Thursday when The Gatorade Company, in collaboration with USA Today High School Sports, announced Itawamba Agricultural senior running back Ashton Shumpert was its 2012-13 Gatorade Mississippi Football Player of the Year.
Two weeks ago, Noxubee County limited Shumpert to 55 yards in a 16-3 victory in the Class 4A North State semifinals in Fulton. Noxubee County senior running back Darrell Robinson rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown in the game. Robinson fared even better last week in a 41-21 victory against Louisville in the Class 4A North State title game in Macon. The 5-foot-10, 191-pounder had 42 carries for 256 yards and five touchdowns (six total) to set the state single-season record for touchdowns with 49. He eclipsed the previous mark of 47 set by former Weir High standout Dicenzo Miller in 1997. Robinson has 330 carries for 2,686 yards this season.
Shumpert's honor is the latest news Noxubee County could use as fuel. In the preseason, the Tigers felt slighted after not having a player named to The Clarion-Ledger's Dandy Dozen, which recognizes 12 of the state's top players. The team also felt it didn't get the respect it deserved early in the season in state rankings.
Senior defensive lineman Dylan Bradley said all of those thoughts have been tucked back into the minds of all of the Tigers.
"We know we have business to take care of Saturday," Bradley said. "We don't care what anybody is saying. We don't care if they are saying, 'They are the best team in the state,' or 'They are the worst team in the state.' Whatever is going on outside of that fieldhouse doesn't matter to us because we all know nobody is going to come between us or break us apart. It is a team effort. One guy didn't lead us to the state championship. It took a team effort. I appreciate the coach saying that and giving us respect, but we have used that respect as our motivation. We have to get our respect. If you're not going to give it to us, we are going to take it by force."
Bradley has been an demon on a defensive line that is one of the state's best. He leads the team with 19 sacks, while classmate Javoris Glenn is next with 12. Senior Antonio Ryland leads the team with 87 tackles (39 solo), while junior Antravion Jamison has a team-high six interceptions.
Greene County will rely on junior quarterback Terrance Woods and senior running back Lamarcus Franks. Woods has rushed for 753 yards and 14 touchdowns and has thrown for 1,735 yards and 23 touchdowns (two interceptions). Franks has 1,683 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Greene County, which is in Leakesville, beat Quitman 24-21 in two overtimes last week to win the South State title. It also defeated Laurel (49-21), Tylertown (49-26), and Bay (28-26) in the playoffs. It lost to Forest County, the No. 1 seed in Region 8, Taylorsville, Bay, and Quitman in the regular season, and was the No. 3 seed out of Region 8.
Noxubee County defensive coordinator George Richardson said the Tigers will try to get the Wildcats into second- and third-and-long situations so they can take advantage of their pass rush.
"I think they are going to try to use their speed and spread us out," Richardson said. "Most teams will try to spread us out because we're strong up front They're going to utilize their running back (Franks) on the speed sweeps to try to get to the edges and to the corners. Their quarterback really is the guy you want to stop. The quarterback also is a runner. He makes their offense go. I think they may use their running back as a decoy to spread you out and attack you with their quarterback. He is a very good athlete, and he can throw."
Richardson is confident, though, because he feels the Tigers' defense has the size, speed, and experience to shift into different looks to combat schemes it might see Saturday.
Bradley shares that belief in the defense for a different reason. He said the team's 23 seniors, including seven who start on defense, have cultivated a bond ever since they joined the varsity program. This season, he said the team chemistry has grown even stronger as the Tigers have moved closer to a goal they wanted to reach last year.
And while Robinson and senior quarterback DeAngelo Ballard will lead the offense, Bradley has the utmost faith the defense will do the job.
"We're going to play fast defense. Speed kills everything," Bradley said. "People run sideline to sideline. We have 300-pound defensive linemen who can run sideline to sideline with you all day. You try to spread us out you're just hurting yourself because you have a wider field to try to get that first down. If you run up the middle, we have a 6-foot-6 nose guard who is going to clog that up for you. When you have that kind of team effort and you put all o that together, no one can hurt that.
"We're not looking past them. We're not saying we have an easy win. If you get to the state championship, you're not a bad team. We're going to come with our 'A' game, and we're going to take control of the game like we do with every game."
Shorter feels his team will be ready. Last week, he saw how much a state championship means to his players when some of them cried after beating Louisville. He said the time is finally here for the Tigers to take the last step. Only then will he finally be able to answer a question his players have been asking him all season: Which Noxubee County High football team is better, the 2008 squad or the 2012 team?
"Our job isn't done," Shorter said. "We have one more to reach the goal they set. If they take care of business Saturday, there is no doubt this team is probably the best, but they have to win a championship. They just have to get the job done Saturday."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.