November 22, 2009 12:10:00 AM
Danny P Smith -
FULTON -- Noxubee County High School football player Vincent Sanders was hurting Friday night.
It had a little bit to do with the pain from a sore hamstring, but more to do with his performance on the field.
While playing quarterback for the Tigers, Sanders was 3 of 7 for 49 yards with an interception against Itawamba Agricultural High School. He carried the football once for a loss of 5 yards and didn''t have a catch.
Sanders knew his performance wasn''t good enough.
Maikhail Miller''s was more than enough to help Itawamba AHS end Noxubee County''s drive for back-to-back state championships.
Miller ran for two touchdowns and threw for another to help the Indians score 17 unanswered points in the second half in a 29-14 victory in the third round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A North Half State playoffs.
Sanders took the loss hard.
"I felt like we should have won the game," Sanders said. "With my hamstring, I wasn''t able to make the plays I should have made to help my teammates come up with a victory, so I have to feel it was my fault. I could have stepped up to do what I needed to do, but I wasn''t able to because of my hamstring."
Once the momentum turned to the favor of Itawamba AHS after halftime, Noxubee County (12-2) couldn''t get it back.
The Tigers tried to find a spark with Sanders at quarterback in the fourth quarter for sophomore Jared Johnson.
Even though he had 209 passing yards, Johnson was 9 of 21 passing with one interception.
Noxubee County coach M.C. Miller hoped for a better effort out of Johnson. When that didn''t happen, Miller opted for Sanders. Fullback Earnest Harmon also took a couple of snaps in the second half.
"We knew if (Johnson) had played well, we''d be OK," Miller said. "We were trying to make plays, but he kept messing up, then we had to go to our fullback (Harmon) and Vince. We thought we had a better team coming in here, but they played harder and wanted it more. I don''t know if we were overconfident, but we didn''t play well. That''s for sure. I give (Itawamba) credit. They did a good job and were prepared for us. They shut us down in the second half."
Johnson showed what he could do early, hitting Terrance Barron with a 70-yard touchdown with 6 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the first half. Sanders ran in the two-point conversion to give the Tigers an 8-2 lead.
A 1-yard touchdown run by Harmon with 39 seconds left in the first half extended the margin to 14-2.
But four turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles) and nine penalties for 53 yards plagued the Tigers.
Noxubee County finished with -31 yards rushing. In the second half, the Tigers had -6 yards on seven carries.
The only first down Noxubee County had in the third quarter was on a 15-yard facemask penalty.
"The third quarter is usually our best quarter, but we couldn''t get anything going," Miller said. "With our offensive line, we couldn''t even get a first down, so we were going to try to run the ball and move it down the field. That killed us."
The Tigers didn''t receive enough production from Johnson, but a freshman provided a major lift for the Indians.
Ashton Shumpert had 126 all-purpose yards for Itawamba AHS (13-0). His 25-yard punt return for a touchdown with 5:53 remaining in the third quarter cut Noxubee County''s lead to 14-9.
The Indians believed defense and special teams were going to be a key to beat the Tigers.
Shumpert took care of the special teams part of the deal.
"Coach told us we had to win the game in special teams," Shumpert said. "I knew (the Noxubee County punter) was going to be far back in the end zone when he punted it. It took a good bounce, so I just got it and took it to the house. It was a momentum changer."
Itawamba AHS coach Jamie Mitchell calls Shumpert, who also caught a 20-yard pass from Miller, a junior quarterback, in the fourth quarter, "the best ninth-grader I''ve ever coached."
"He''s a phenomenal athlete," Mitchell said. "I don''t know how he''ll progress, but he''s a special player."
Itawamba AHS, which was eliminated from the playoffs by Noxubee County the past two seasons, will play host to Lafayette County on Friday to see which Class 4A team will represent the North in the state championship game the first weekend of December.
After consecutive state title appearances, Miller said it will be unusual for the Tigers not to be there this year.
"It''s hard to see it end because we knew if we got by this game, we had a chance of going all the way," Miller said. "We knew this was going to be our toughest game. We prepared, but it just wasn''t meant to be. We made too many mistakes."