October 7, 2012 1:14:14 AM
BATESVILLE -- Most football teams can point to a big victory as a turning point in a playoff season.
If Columbus High can work its way into the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A playoffs this season, the turning point may be traced back to a tough loss.
On Friday, Columbus battled one of the state's elite until the final horn before dropping a disappointing 21-14 decision to third-ranked South Panola in a Class 6A, Region 1 classic at Dunlap Stadium.
"The coaches told us to come out here and play with a lot of heart," Columbus senior wide receiver DeMarcus Vance said. "I believe in all of my brothers. We ride as a team. We go together as a team. We were there in the end. We left some points on the field tonight."
Columbus suffered its second straight region defeat to fall to 4-3 and 1-2 in the region, while South Panola improved to 5-2 and 3-0. The top four teams in the eight-team region advance to the playoffs. While there is work to be done, it appears the Falcons will be up to the task.
"We have four region games left, if we win them all, we will be in the playoffs," Columbus coach Tony Stanford said. "We probably get in at 3-1, but then we are leaving it to chance. I know this, if we get in the playoffs, we can compete with any other 6A team in the state."
Those in attendance on South Panola's Senior Night would be hard-pressed to argue. In a briskly played, near flawless first half, the teams left the field tied at 7.
In the second half, South Panola backed its ranking by blocking a punt and forcing two fumbles. The margin for error is limited when playing one of the state's best, and the Falcons exceeded the mistake quota in the third quarter.
"We know how really close we are," Columbus junior quarterback Trace Lee said. "We know what it takes to take that next step. We had a chance against one of the best teams in the state. We are this close. Everybody on this team knows that. Now we got to figure out how to eliminate those mistakes and take the next step."
South Panola appeared concerned from the opening kickoff. The Tigers ran a gadget play, faked a punt, and tried an onside kick in the first 14 minutes.
A 60-yard second-quarter punt by Columbus' Rashad Meeks pinned South Panola at its 1-yard line.
Columbus used an all-out blitz to stop the run on first down. Seeing the defense set up to stop the run, quarterback Rip Kirk hit DeAndrea Harris over the middle for a 99-yard touchdown.
"We have lost containment each of the last two games at a critical time," Stanford said. "The defense has played so hard and so well this year. Everyone is expecting the run from the 1-yard line. You give credit South Panola for getting us on that play."
After the onside kick failed, Columbus took advantage of the short field to move 50 yards on 10 plays. Thanks to two penalties, the Falcons faced second-and-33. Lee found that down and distance to his liking, as he hit Jimmy Cockrell, who broke four tackles, for a 37-yard touchdown.
"We felt really good at the half," Lee said. "We knew the game was right where we wanted it to be. We played a perfect first half. Unfortunately, we could not battle back from the mistakes in the second half."
Columbus didn't run a play inside the Southaven red zone last week in a 17-7 defeat. In the first half Friday night, the Falcons made it past that barrier twice. The other strong drive ended with Preston Taylor missing a 36-yard field goal.
"It was the best offensive game we have had this season," Stanford said.
The Falcons finished with 14 first downs and 231 yards of offense. Lee was 9 of 14 for 93 yards.
"The offense came out believing in each other," Vance said. "We played against a great team. We showed them we weren't scared."
The game's turning point came in the third quarter and was as brutal for Columbus as the temperature drop which happened at the game's end.
Columbus went three-and-out on the opening possession of the third quarter. This time, South Panola's Stephen Stanford blocked Meeks' punt to give the Tigers the football on the Falcons' 12-yard line. After a penalty, Kirk found C.J. Leland for a 22-yard touchdown.
South Panola followed that up with an 82-yard, five-play drive minutes later. Kirk completed his three-touchdown night with a 27-yard scoring strike to Darrell Henderson.
Columbus answered in the fourth quarter thanks to a takeaway. A fumble recovery by Corey Brown gave the Falcons a pulse.
Lee moved the squad 25 yards on just three plays to make it a one-score game. Lee's 1-yard rush brought the guests within 21-14 with 4 minutes, 15 seconds left in regulation.
Columbus got the ball back one last time. Again the Falcons were moving when Vance made a nifty catch and moved the ball just past the midfield stripe before losing possession.
"I just didn't tuck the ball away," Vance said. "I know better than that. I was trying to make a big play for my team. It is a disappointment, but we can learn from it."
Columbus will continue to learn and to grow Friday night when DeSoto Central comes calling for Homecoming. In a passionate postgame speech, Stanford implored his team to take their efforts to another level for the final four weeks of the regular season.
"We can be a playoff team," Stanford said. "I know it. They know it, but we got to win them all and leave no doubt. There is no way I could be prouder of the effort. We just got to work on the mistakes column. If we do that, we can be pretty good in the end."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
1. Fast starts help prepare Heritage Academy for opener HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. Report: Former LSU quarterback enrolls at EMCC COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Columbus' King will bring needed experience to secondary HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
4. Eubanks will try to take on 'alpha' role for Bulldogs COLLEGE SPORTS