November 22, 2013 11:04:51 AM
HAMILTON -- Ray Weeks admits he was curious.
A disheartening loss can take the starch out of any team, let alone one that denies your team a chance to win a division title. To compound matters, the Hamilton High School football team's 34-0 loss to Coffeeville dropped it to a No. 3 seed in Class 1A, Region 1 and forced it to go on the road to play at Mound Bayou JFK in the first round of the Class 1A North State playoffs.
But Weeks, who is from Ruleville, saw in the days leading up to his return to his old stomping grounds that the Lions weren't going to let that defeat deter them from the ultimate goal.
"Are you willing to trade a division championship for a state championship?" Weeks asked after the loss.
The level of enthusiasm and intensity leading up to the playoff opener was tested again when Mound Bayou JFK scored first. On the road in a hostile environment with its season on the line, the Lions again rose to the occasion thanks to a dominating rushing attack. Quinshay Heard, Keshon Heard, Pallas Fair, and Dominique Dobbs had rushing touchdowns as part of a 340-yard attack that propelled Hamilton to a 27-26 victory.
The victory was Hamilton's first in the playoffs since 1986. The reward will come at 7 tonight when Hamilton (9-3) plays host to St. Aloysius (8-4) at The Jungle. St. Aloysius upset Region 1 champion Coffeeville to give Hamilton a chance to take the next step on its quest for that state in Monroe County.
Quinshay Heard, a senior, is part of that multi-faceted attack with his brother, Keshon, who is a junior. He said he has played with a lot of the current players ever since Pee Wee days. While that may have been the case with prior teams at the school, Heard believes there is something special about this group.
"Teamwork makes dreamwork," Heard said. "We have played some hard teams and we have stayed together."
The depth of playmakers has helped the Lions stayed together. Heard said sophomores, juniors, and seniors have emerged to make big plays to prevent opponents from keying in on one player. He said the number of weapons has been a primary reason the team has been able to make history. He anticipates a packed house to see the team take the next step.
"I think there are going to be a lot of fans here to support us," Heard said. "It has been a long time since we have made it to the second round. We also haven't lost a game at home this season."
Senior offensive lineman Nick Owens said Hamilton tried to treat the game at Mound Bayou JFK just like another game. He said the significance of what the team accomplished didn't hit him until days after the victory. He hopes that momentum carries over to tonight and fuels what he, too, hopes is a big crowd.
"It made me feel proud I did something that my mother and her cheerleading squad and that football team did," said Owens, whose mother, Brenda, was a cheerleader at Hamilton High. "It made me feel good and made me feel I made my family proud. I know it also made all of the guys feel really good."
Weeks, who has been head football coach at Hamilton since 2004, said he was "shocked" to learn Hamilton hadn't won a playoff game in that long. He knew the Lions were winless in his six trips in his tenure, but he didn't imagine that much time has passed since Hamilton had advanced to the second round. That all has changed last week -- and ended a 10-game playoff losing streak -- thanks to a group he said is one of the most unselfish teams he has coached.
"They're happy when their teammates score, you don't hear them complaining, and they don't let it eat away at the team," Weeks said. "Even though I think some of them would like more of that (attention), they don't let it affect them and let it affect the team. That has been the key to our success. These kids just want to win. It doesn't matter who scores the touchdown, or who throws the pass, or who makes the block, or who makes the tackle. They just want to win."
Hamilton has had plenty of talent in past years, whether it was in Class 2A or in Class 1A. But Weeks said the team chemistry and closeness of the players has helped them win close games against Potts Camp, Coldwater, and Smithville. He believed the team could have success this season, but he began to believe in that as players improved and came together and the Lions pulled out close games to help them forge a three-way tie in the Region 1 standings with Smithville and Falkner.
"They will tell each other before a ballgame, 'I am going to play hard for you today,' " Weeks said. "I guess every so often a coach gets a special group of kids to come through, and this is a special group."
Weeks said this year's team also has learned lessons from past teams. In 2011, Hamilton lost to Ackerman at home in a game that decided the division title. Weeks said Hamilton came out "flat" the following week and lost to Hollandale Simmons 8-6 in a game he feels the team didn't play its best.
Two years later, Weeks said the Lions could have played their best game of the season to escape their long road trip with a victory. He hopes that effort wasn't the best because he knows Hamilton will need an even better effort tonight. If he gets it, Hamilton will have a goo chance of advancing to face the winner of the Shelby Broad Street-Smithville game next week to determine the North State champion.
"That is just the nature of this team," Weeks said. "They are not going to quit. They are going to play hard for four quarters."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.