September 25, 2010 1:17:00 AM
The stretch run to the playoffs begins in earnest tonight.
For Class 6A Columbus High School and for Class 5A New Hope and West Point, that journey will take them through two of the state''s toughest regions.
The Falcons (2-2) will travel to Tupelo (3-0) for a 7:30 p.m. game against an opponent that already has defeated New Hope 33-23. The matchup is an important one for both teams given Region 1 also includes South Panola (4-0), the defending Class 6A champion, Southaven (4-0), Starkville and Olive Branch (2-2). DeSoto Central and Horn Lake (0-4) also are in the region.
The top four teams in the region will qualify for the playoffs later in the season, which makes winning region games on the road a distinct challenge.
Taking the first one of the season could be even more arduous, but Columbus coach Tony Stanford feels his team is up to the task.
"We have had a good week (of practice)," Stanford said. "They worked hard, and I think they will be ready to play."
Stanford is even more optimistic because his team is nearly back to 100 percent. He said Thursday that linebacker Gemriah Williams, who has missed the past few weeks with an injury, has been cleared to play but he hasn''t practiced. He said he still feels Williams is a week from playing.
Columbus will try to rebound from a 36-28 loss to Louisville in which it rallied from a three-score deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter. The Falcons might not be as capable of pulling that off this week. Tupelo, which was off last week, shut out Louisville 17-0 on Sept. 10.
Stanford feels his players are excited about the start of region play because it is the first step to securing a trip to the postseason. Even though quarterback Cedrick Jackson and running back Damian Baker, among others, have missed playing time due to injuries this season, Stanford feels his squad is ready to make a push.
"We feel this game is a very important ballgame so we don''t start in the hole like we usually do," Stanford said. "I think the players realize how important it is, and I hope we show up and play a real good ballgame."
Competition looks to be as tough, if not tougher, in Class 5A, Region 1. Defending state champion West Point (3-1) figures to be the team to beat, with Lake Cormorant, Oxford, and Saltillo (all at 3-1) and New Hope, Hernando, Clarksdale, and Indianola Gentry (2-2) hot on the heels of the Green Wave.
New Hope will try to build on the momentum of a 40-0 victory at Caledonia last week when it plays host to Oxford at 7:30 p.m. Last year, bad weather forced the teams to play at the University of Mississippi''s Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where the Trojans earned a 21-11 victory.
New Hope coach Michael Bradley feels that result is similar to his team''s 28-17 victory against Tupelo last season. He said both results were a lot closer than the final score indicated, which means his players have to focused and ready to go in the first quarter. Unfortunately, New Hope didn''t do that earlier this season at Tupelo, falling behind 21-0 at halftime.
"The guys know Oxford is a good team and that it is going to be a tough task," Bradley said. "(Last year), they had several opportunities to put points on the board but they didn''t. We stopped them and they stopped themselves."
Bradley isn''t sure if his team regained any of the "it" factor he was looking for last week. He said the Trojans will need it tonight if they want to start region play with some momentum.
"It seems like everybody (in the region) is better with the exception of maybe us," Bradley said. "Oxford is a lot better this year and, of course, West Point is always going to be real good. Several of the other teams also have improved. It is a tough because of the teams in the district and the distance you have to travel to play."
West Point will make one of those trips when it heads to Indianola Gentry. Coach Chris Chambless said his team regained some of its mojo last week with a 28-13 victory against Class 4A power Noxubee County. A week earlier, West Point squandered a 20-0 halftime lead and lost to Starkville 21-20.
"We''re good," Chambless said. "(Last week) was very important because we were able to get the ''refuse-to-lose'' attitude back. We played with that last week, and it was nice to get it back."
Chambless said he expects "local" teams in the region to be tough this season but that he is a little surprised at the strength of some of the other opponents his team will face.
Tonight, he expects Indianola Gentry to be very athletic, fast, and big, sort of a mirror image to his team.
"I think they are bigger than us," Chambless said.
That''s quite a challenge to begin region play, but Chambless feels his team is ready to go.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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