November 19, 2010 8:39:00 AM
ABERDEEN -- The mystery has been solved.
Years ago, Brandon Smith''s eyes earned him a special nickname from an uncle.
Somehow, though, that nickname -- "Buck" -- turned into "Bucket," which is how the Aberdeen High School football coaches and players call out to Smith.
Instead of correcting them each time, Smith has shrugged off each use of the word with a smile. He has more important things to focus on, like helping the Bulldogs get back to Jackson.
Aberdeen (12-1) will try to take another step closer to that goal at 7 tonight when it plays host to Belmont (12-0) in a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 3A third-round playoff game.
The winner of tonight''s game will advance to the North State title game next week against the winner of the Water Valley-Winona game.
Aberdeen will look to seniors Smith, who sees playing time at running back and in the secondary, and defensive lineman Fred Ward to lead the way. Aberdeen coach Chris Duncan said both players, who are three-year starters, have matured this season and have become even better leaders.
"Fred has done a good job controlling the line of scrimmage," Duncan said. "He really is a coachable kid, but he has been a leader for us offensively and defensively and has really matured. That is something money can''t buy: Leadership."
Ward, who is 6-foot-3, 240 pound nose guard/tackle, said he has matured into a big brother who is a leader. He said he has been coming to practice on time and has been encouraging teammates to work hard and not to give up, just like the big brothers, the seniors from the 2009 team, did last season.
"I give it all on both sides of the ball," Ward said. "I don''t give up and keep on pushing and pushing."
Ward said he has learned not to get too down after a bad play. He said he experienced that feeling in the opener against Columbus, but quickly realized he has to snap out of the funk to set the example for his teammates. He has used his quickness to be a force on both sides of the ball.
Duncan said Ward has learned how to trust the coaches and is reaping the rewards from those lessons.
"He was a guy we always had to fuss at last year," Duncan said. "He didn''t want to come to practice, but he hasn''t missed a day all year. He has been at practice, he speaks up, he is vocal, he practices hard every day, and he plays hard every Friday. You know what you have got with him every time you go on the field."
Duncan said "Bucket" has been a leader all over the field. He said Smith understands the game and the routes and puts himself in position to make plays because he knows what he is doing.
Smith, a 5-11, 179-pounder, has left an injury-riddled past behind him and has become a two-way performer. As a sophomore, he suffered an ankle injury that limited his effectiveness. Last year, he missed eight or nine games.
This season, Duncan said Smith has proved to be an effective complement for Victor Hodges on the offense.
"Now I am healthy I am ready," Smith said. "I know what I can do what I can do and use my speed to break loose and score touchdowns."
Smith said he has avoided getting overconfident to remain focused on offense and when he plays safety on defense. With multiple interceptions this season, Smith feels he has matured as a player, and he hopes to continue his career at the next level.
"I am coachable," Smith said. "Whatever the coaches tell me to do, I do it to get better. I am being more aggressive. I want to go out my senior year with a bang. I want a ring."
Aberdeen beat Region 2 rivals Winona (38-14 on Oct. 1) and Water Valley 35-14 on Oct. 8) in the regular season en route to a perfect region mark.
Aberdeen has won 12 in a row since an 8-6 loss to Class 6A Columbus on Aug. 20. The Bulldogs have posted three shutouts, and all of their victories have been by at least 21 points.
Like Aberdeen, close games have been an aberration for Belmont. The Cardinals have had only two games as close as 23 points this season. Their closest game, a 21-16 victory against Booneville, was on Oct. 29.
Last year, Aberdeen lost to Tylertown 34-20 in the Class 3A title game. Smith and Ward don''t want to be a part of a repeat performance and intend to do all they can to script a different ending.
"I am unsatisfied," Ward said. "It is a huge motivation. I want to get back and win it.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.