October 30, 2013 10:08:36 AM
MACON -- The postseason is the favorite time of the year for the Noxubee High School football team.
It has been a destination Tyrone Shorter has reached in nearly every one of his 15 years with the program. Now in his fourth season as head coach, Shorter's Tigers already have locked up the top seed in Class 4A, Region 4 with the regular-season finale against Houston set for 7 p.m. At 6-3 and 4-0 in the region, Shorter isn't sure who his team will play host to in the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association North State playoffs. While he is itching to get started on the second season, he knows the Tigers must take care of business first and get past a Houston team that will be eager to close its season on a high note.
"This team is getting better and better," Shorter said. "We had a tough stretch at the beginning, but I can see the growth in this team. I like our chances. I think we are going to match up with anybody we play in the playoffs."
Noxubee County will try to wrap up another undefeated region record with sophomore Timorrius Conner at quarterback. Conner, who returned to the lineup last week in a 34-6 victory against Caledonia, was slated to split time at quarterback Jessie Bryant in his first game action after recovering from an injury. But an injury to Bryant forced Conner into action for the all of the second half.
While Conner played well, Shorter said it is natural to be concerned any time you change quarterbacks, especially when Bryant had been doing a good job managing the game. It's even more natural to be a little apprehensive given Noxubee County is about to open defense of its 2012 Class 4A state title.
Shorter said Bryant will sit out this week and could miss the first round of the playoffs. Other than senior defensive end Denzell Clemons, Shorter said the Tigers are nearly back to 100 percent health. He said the team is most healthy on defense, which has created problems for him to find playing time now that nearly everyone is back and ready to go.
Still, Noxubee County has flown under the radar for nearly all of the season. A challenging non-region schedule against Starkville, Columbus, Louisville, Aberdeen, and West Point left Noxubee County with three losses entering region play. Shorter said the strength of those first five teams helped his team fight back and beat Kosciusko and Leake Central in its first two region games.
Even though Noxubee County was only also receiving votes in the final Associated Press Class 4A rankings released Tuesday, Shorter doesn't mind. He is more focused on impressing on his players the fact that the postseason is entirely different than the regular season. With so many sophomores and juniors in key roles for the first time, Shorter isn't sure if all of his players comprehend things are going to get a whole lot tougher very quickly,
"A lot of people are looking at us as a young football team that is rebuilding," Shorter said. "We had a tough schedule and lost three ballgames, and I guess that is not usual for Noxubee County to lose, so a lot of people are counting us. A lot of people aren't looking for us to go deep into the playoffs or to get back to Jackson. That is fine with me. Since I have been here for 15 years, we have barely gotten the respect these kids deserve anyway, so it really doesn't matter."
Shorter said the players responded to Conner's return and to Bryant's injury. He isn't sure how things will play out when both players are back and healthy, but he feels even better knowing the Tigers could have two experienced options in time to make a playoff push. Bryant and Conner competed for the starting job in the preseason. After Shorter named Conner the starter at quarterback, Bryant moved to wide receiver.
With the change at quarterback, Shorter said it will be ever more important for the Tigers to get consistent production from their stable of running backs. Shorter held true to his promise against West Lauderdale when he removed Ladaveon Smith from the rotation after he fumbled in the first quarter. Anzarius Taylor, Shannessy Sherrod, and Devonte Scott helped pick up the slack. He hopes the running backs will continue to protect the football and realize the postseason is a chance for all of them to shine.
"We are asking these young guys to do a whole lot," Shorter said. "We are going to try to run the football. I feel if you are going to have success in the playoffs you have to be able to run the football, control the clock, and manage the game.
The way our defense is playing right now, I would take a 6-0 or a 3-0 ballgame. The way our defense is playing, I don't think people are going to score a lot on us. ... I feel really good about our defense and our special teams. We are not asking the kids to score a lot. If we don't turn the ball over, give teams anything, and don't give up the big play, I think we will be in every game we play in the playoffs. If we kick a field goal, we feel we can win the game."
Last season, Noxubee County followed a similar plan. It relied on its defense and needed to score only 14 and 16 points to beat Lafayette and Itawamba Agricultural before it beat Greene County 16-6 to win its second state title. A similar script would work out just fine for Shorter, who hopes his team can become a totally different team like it has in past postseason runs.
"Since this team is so young, I am wondering if it is going to be ready mentally to focus," Shorter said. "You have the weather involved,. You might have to travel more than two hours. Your routine is going to be different in the playoffs. ... You never know what to expect. I told them (Monday) you have to be good in the month of November to play in Jackson in December."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.