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Coming off a critical region win, Colbert Heights sets its sights on beating Sheffield

At halftime of last Friday’s critical Class 3A, Region 8 showdown with rival Lexington, Colbert Heights head coach Taylor Leathers ducked into a back office inside the field house at Amos Mitchell Stadium, along with offensive line coach Justin Helms and one of the two I-Pads the team uses to watch film during games.

While his players re-hydrated in the adjacent locker room on a warm, muggy evening, Leathers reviewed a handful of the Wildcats’ offensive plays from late in the first half. The I-Pad confirmed what his own eyes had told him on the sideline just a few moments earlier.

“On those last two series [of the first half], we just weren’t coming off the football like we’re capable,” Leathers said. “We were not executing our blocks.”

With his team trailing 7-6, Leathers knew exactly what it was going to take for the Wildcats to snap a streak of five straight losses to Lexington and secure a crucial region win. They had to play better at the point of attack on offense.

“We really challenged our offensive line to win the game up front in the second half,” Leathers said. “We challenged our O-line to do a better job of making their blocks, holding their blocks and staying on their blocks. We didn’t really change what we were doing. It wasn’t about making any halftime adjustments. It was more of a halftime challenge.

“I thought if we could play better up front, we had a great opportunity to win the game.”

It didn’t take long for Leathers to see that his offensive linemen (senior left tackle Cain Phifer, senior left guard Chason Scott, senior center Isaac Gipson, senior right guard Brannon Bradford and junior right tackle Tyler Tubbs, plus junior tight end Evan Norton) had embraced his challenge. Colbert Heights scored on its opening possession of the third quarter and never let up, tacking on two more touchdowns to out-score Lexington 21-0 in the second half and pull away for an impressive 27-7 win.

“Driving down and scoring to start the third quarter was huge,” said Leathers, whose team improved to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in region play. “That was the most important drive of the game.”

By night’s end the Wildcats had run 46 times for 245 yards, 171 of which came courtesy of senior quarterback Kevin Shaw. Coordinator Lonnie Robinson’s defense, meanwhile, stood strong against Lexington’s triple-option attack and picked off Golden Bear quarterback Tyler Pettus three times.

“Our defense bent a little, but it didn’t break,” Leathers said. “We did a good job taking away their inside run game with Everett [Williams, Lexington’s 220-pound senior fullback]. By doing that, we put them in some third-and-long situations where they had to throw the football, and that’s not a position they’re real comfortable with. Our defensive backs did a good job breaking on the ball and making some plays.”

Shaw, who plays safety in certain situations, came up with a pair of key interceptions, including one off a tipped ball in the end zone. His performance on offense, however, made an even greater impact. The 171 rushing yards (on 25 carries) were a new season-high; he ran for two touchdowns and also made a handful of key plays in the passing game, completing 5-of-11 throws for 83 yards.

“Kevin had another good game running the ball,” Leathers said of Shaw, who had rushed for 149 yards on 22 carries in the previous week’s loss to West Morgan. “We’ve been trying to put him in a position to run the ball more downhill lately. Teams have been taking away the dive on the option, and when that happens the quarterback is gonna end up running the football a lot. Kevin has been doing a good job on the power read, where he can give it on the jet sweep or pull it and run the power. It’s more of the stuff we were doing with him last year.

“I’m proud of the leadership Kevin is showing, too. He’s improving in that area every week.”

Senior fullback Dylan Chandler added 40 yards and a touchdown (his ninth of the season) on 10 carries last week, and freshman Carson Shaw ran five times for 24 yards and a score. Senior Korey Saint caught two passes for 45 yards, and Norton had a 19-yard reception.

Defensively, Saint led the way with seven solo tackles and nine total stops. Chandler had seven tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and senior Blane Howard had a sack. Linebacker Brendan Borden, end Bud Pratt and corner Tanner Rickard each made five solo tackles, and Rickard also picked off a pass.

The improved play of the secondary, which surrendered four passing touchdowns on just six completions in a 35-14 loss to Lexington last season, has been key for a Wildcat defense that has allowed a total of just 27 points in the team’s four wins.

“I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made on the back end from last year to this year,” Leathers said. “Tanner Rickard has been on the team for a while, but this is his first year to really play a lot. He’s done a good job in coverage for us. Kevin spot-plays at safety, and he made a great play the other night where he came across the field from his safety position and picked one off.

“Those guys have been more consistent as far as not getting the deep ball thrown over them and tackling everything in front of them. That’s one area where I think we can still improve—coming up and tackling on run downs and on the short stuff.”

Limiting big plays and tackling in space will be key for the Wildcats this week if they hope to end a streak of six straight losses to rival Sheffield. The Bulldogs dropped to 1-4 with last week’s 21-13 loss to Mars Hill, but Leathers is wary of their big-play ability.

“Sheffield is an explosive team,” he said. “They’re a big-play team. They’re never short on speed and athletes. Their skill players are talented, and they love to play in space. They’ll flip it out to a receiver or a running back in space, and those guys can make plays. We’ll have to be disciplined and sound on defense and be where we’re supposed to be.”

Last week’s win over Lexington puts Colbert Heights in solid position to end a five-year playoff drought. With two wins in their final four region games (home against Elkmont, home against Colbert County, at Lauderdale County and home against East Lawrence), the Wildcats would almost certainly qualify for the postseason. [Elkmont beat East Lawrence 40-12 last week; the two teams are now a combined 1-8 on the season.]

For the time being, though, Leathers said his players are fully focused on Friday’s trip to Sheffield.

“It’s the next game for us, and we approach every game the same whether it’s a region game or not,” said Leathers, who is midway through his second season at Colbert Heights. “It might not have any playoff implications, but we don’t talk about that with our players. Our preparation is the same, and we practice with the same level of intensity. Our goal is to win every game we play.

“When I took the job here, one of the first things I was told was that our players play really hard against Sheffield. They’re not in Tuscumbia, but they’re right across the tracks, so to speak. It’s a rivalry game, and it’s a momentum game for us. We’re right where we wanna be, and this game could give us a boost going back into region play.”

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