November 6, 2012 10:20:25 PM
MACON -- The focus is there.
Noxubee County High School football coach Tyrone Shorter feels it in how his players are talking. He hears it when they're working out in the weight room.
Most importantly, he sees it on the practice field, regardless of the weather.
Shorter smiled Monday when his players encouraged him to let them practice in the rain instead of moving across the street to practice in a covered area. He hopes that focus will carry through the rest of the week and help Noxubee County (12-0) be at its best at 7 p.m. Friday when it plays host to Lafayette (10-2) in the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A North State playoffs.
"I have been telling the kids that there is no such thing as a bad game now," Shorter said. "It is all mental now. You have to cut all of the mistakes out now. You had 11 games to take care of all of those things."
In a season filled with motivation, Noxubee County needs only think back to 2010 and a 20-0 loss to Lafayette in the Class 4A North State title game in Macon. Jeremy Liggins and Demarkus Dennis combined on a 56-yard hitch-and-go touchdown pass in the second half that propelled the Commodores to their first of back-to-back 16-0 seasons and Class 4A crowns.
This season, Oxford snapped Lafayette's 34-game winning streak with a 19-0 victory in a C Spire Bright Lights rivalry game. New Albany secured the Region 2 title with a 10-7 victory.
Led by senior quarterback Brandon Mack and junior running back D.K. Buford, Lafayette defeated Greenwood 24-7 last week in the first round of the playoffs. Eric Robertson, who spent seven seasons as defensive coordinator under former coach Anthony Hart, who is now the school's athletic director, is in his first season as the program's head coach.
Noxubee County took the first step on what it hopes will be the road to Jackson last week with a 42-6 victory against Shannon. Shorter liked how his team started and finished quickly in its playoff opener. He cited those factors as keys entering the game, and pointed to them as proof his players are focused on getting back to Jackson, the site of the state title games. Noxubee County advanced to Jackson in 2008 and won its only state title in football.
Shorter hopes the Tigers are on a similar path. He expects senior defensive lineman Dylan Bradley to be back after missing the past two weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament. He believes his team will be ready for any weather and any obstacle to be put in their way.
"We are physical and we have all of the things we need," Shorter said. "I was just worried about the kids getting sick practicing in this weather, but they went out and had a great practice."
A Noxubee County victory and a victory Friday by Itawamba Agricultural High would mean the Tigers have to go on the road for the third round. A victory in Fulton would send Noxubee County back home, where it would play host to the North State title game.
But Shorter cautioned against looking that far ahead because his team learned anything can happen last season when it lost to Amory in the second round of the playoffs. With 23 seniors on this season's team, he hopes those players will continue to provide the leadership and the focus the team needs to stay on track.
"When I told them Friday night who they were going to play after the Shannon game, they just started yelling," Shorter said. "This group gets up for the big game. It is the challenge. They want the challenge. So far, you don't have to motivate them. They already know what is at stake. They know Lafayette County is still the champs until somebody else beats them and wins the state championship.
"These kids know they have a great program, and they're ready for this ballgame. We're excited about it."
Shorter said five or six of the seniors started the last time Lafayette came to Macon for a playoff game. He said he has listened to the players talk confidently about what they were going to do Friday. He feels the example those seniors are setting bodes well for the future -- and for staying alive past the second round in 2012.
"One of the seniors said, 'This is the round we went home in last year'," Shorter said. "They keep talking about what the 2008 team did and what they are doing now. It is like history repeating itself. They know what is at stake. They are really working hard for it. I am proud of these kids. I want this for these kids badder than anything."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.