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Unbeaten Colbert Heights prepares for tall task in Trinity

Trailing 14-10 with less than 30 seconds left in the all-important region opener at Clements last Friday night, Colbert Heights faced fourth-and-six from the Colt 18-yard-line. Enough time remained for the Wildcats to consider going for a first down rather than a touchdown, but head coach Taylor Leathers only had one thing on his mind.

“I was thinking end zone the whole time,” said Leathers, whose team had seen Clements wipe out a 10-0 deficit with a pair of second-half touchdowns, including the go-ahead score just moments earlier. “We hadn’t moved the ball well all night.”

Leathers signaled in the play-call to senior quarterback Kevin Shaw; then, after getting a look at the way the Colts aligned their defense, Leathers called the team’s final timeout.

“We decided to coach it one more time,” he said. “We saw the safety cheating over to one side of the field a little bit, and we thought we could squeeze the post in there and go for the end zone.”

Senior Korey Saint, who would finish the night with 10 tackles and two interceptions at linebacker, lined up as a receiver for the critical fourth-down play, drawing single coverage in the Wildcats’ four-wide formation. The 6’2, 200-pound Saint ran the post route, and Shaw threw him a strike for an 18-yard touchdown to put Colbert Heights back in front.

The defense closed the deal, and the Wildcats improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2010. More importantly, they averted a loss that would have dealt a damaging early blow to their hopes of ending a five-year playoff drought.

“It was one of those games that came down to the wire,” Leathers said. “We were fortunate enough to make a big play when it counted. They had Korey singled up. He’s a talented athlete, and Kevin made a good throw to him. The good Lord was looking out for us, and he hauled it in.

“It was a huge clutch play that had to be made, or we lose the game.”

At the very least, the game-winner from Shaw to Saint (who, incidentally, hadn’t caught a pass yet this season) got Colbert Heights off on the right foot in the Class 3A, Region 8 race. If it also turns out to be a shot in the arm for an offense that has struggled to find a rhythm thus far, that would be even better.

“I certainly think it could,” said Leathers, whose team has scored a total of seven first-half points in three games—while giving up zero. “I believe our offense will improve. We’re focused on executing better, getting all eleven guys to carry out their assignment. But that’s the kind of play that could be a spark for our offense and give us some confidence moving forward.”

If the Wildcats, who averaged a respectable 23.5 points per game last year in Leathers’ first season as head coach, do get their offense rolling, they just might make some legitimate noise in an extremely competitive region where playoff spots are hard to come by.

“When we’re clicking on all cylinders in all three phases,” Leathers said, “I think we’re a pretty good football team.”

So far, two out of three has been good enough to get the Wildcats to 3-0. A stingy defense led by Saint (27 tackles) and fellow senior linebackers Dylan Chandler (29 tackles, including 12 against Clements last week), Brendan Borden (25 tackles) and Bevin Foust (19 tackles) is holding opponents to just 6.7 points per game. Special teams have also been a strength, with Borden providing a much-needed spark in the return game and senior Blane Howard (whose 25-yard field goal against Clements proved to be the difference) solidifying the kicking game.

“Blane’s a senior, but this is his first year to play for us,” Leathers said. “He came out this year, and I told him, ‘See if you can kick this football.’ He’s really done a great job for us. He’s consistently putting the ball inside the ten on kickoffs, and the other night he put one inside the five. Our goal is to keep our opponents inside the thirty-yard line on kickoffs, and he’s really helped us with that.

“Our kick return game has been really solid, too, just putting us in position to score. In all three games so far, Brendan has returned one into the red zone. That’s a credit to him and to Coach [Isaac] Fuller, who works with our special teams.”

Leathers said field position will be critical once again in Friday night’s region game at West Morgan—along with more consistent production on offense and another disciplined effort on defense.

“Offensively, we’ve gotta have sustained drives,” Leathers said. “That’s the number one thing. That’s been our nemesis these first three weeks. We’ve gotta run the football and sustain lengthy drives, and then finish those drives with points. Defensively, we have to be sure tacklers. Coach [Lonnie] Robinson will have our guys in the right place; we just have to make the plays.

“West Morgan has a very talented running back who’s elusive and hard to tackle. We can’t let him slip out. Their quarterback is a good passer, and he likes to throw the deep ball. Our corners and safeties have to do a good job of taking that away. We’ve gotta make them earn what they get. They’ll run some zone-read, too, and against the zone-read you have to be where you’re supposed to be. Their quarterback can throw it, but he’s a good runner, too.”

Senior quarterback Gabe Peluso leads a potent West Morgan attack that put up 103 combined points in wins over St. John Paul II and Priceville to start the season before hitting a bump in the road last week in a 21-15 loss to Lauderdale County. In a 47-6 rout of Priceville two weeks ago, Peluso threw for 97 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 97 yards. He followed that up with a pair of touchdown tosses to his favorite target, Maurice Gray, in last week’s loss in Rogersville.

Gray, who totaled 161 yards and two touchdowns on just four receptions in a season-opening 56-0 rout of St. John Paul II, is one of several big-play threats for the Rebels (2-1, 0-1). Senior running back Isaac Huguley, a Decatur transfer, broke off a 70-yard touchdown run against Priceville, finishing the game with 119 yards on 15 carries. JaKobe Fletcher, who totaled 147 yards and four touchdowns on just 11 carries in the first two games of the season, is also dangerous.

“West Morgan is a really good football team,” Leathers said on Sunday night while breaking down game film of the Rebels. “They were definitely the most improved team in the region last year, and I think it’s a close call between them and Clements as to who the most improved team in the region is this year. 

“They’re very sound defensively. Coach [Chris] Balentine, who used to be the defensive coordinator at Muscle Shoals, is their defensive coordinator now. He does a great job on that side of the ball, and Coach [John] Ritter does a great job with the offense.”

In an interesting twist, both teams will be looking for a measure of revenge on Friday night in Trinity. The Wildcats won last year’s meeting 42-27 in Tuscumbia (their fourth straight win in the series) and were on track to make the playoffs before stumbling in the final game of the regular season with a 30-24 loss at East Lawrence. West Morgan capitalized, stealing the fourth and final playoff spot in Region 8 with a 17-7 upset of Lexington.

“That’s something we’ll remind our guys about every day this week,” Leathers said. “They made the playoffs last year, and we didn’t. Plus, this group of seniors we’ve got has never lost to West Morgan. We beat them last year at our homecoming game, and this is their homecoming game on Friday night.

“I don’t think motivation will be a problem for either side.”

Should they need any extra incentive moving forward, the Wildcats need only look back to last season, when the momentum from a 3-1 start failed to survive the grind of a brutally tough schedule down the stretch.

Leathers is optimistic that this year’s team can write a different script.

“Our guys have some confidence right now,” he said, “and I don’t want them to take being 3-0 for granted. But we still have a long way to go. We started fast last year, too. We were 3-1, and then we only won one more game the rest of the year. A lot of that had to do with our strength of schedule on the back end, but we have the same schedule this year.

“One difference is, I do think we’re playing better on defense than we were last year. We just have to continue to improve overall. We have eighteen seniors, but a lot of those guys hadn’t started a game before this year. We’ve really challenged our guys to take ownership of this team and keep working every day. If our guys will take ownership and continue to improve, we can be as good as they want to be.”

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