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Colbert clash: Wildcats look to seize opportunity and 'make history' by beating Indians

Taylor Leathers walked into the Colbert Heights football facility on Sunday afternoon and wrote a series of numbers on the white board: 3-30 and 2011.

The first two numbers represent the Wildcats’ all-time record versus Colbert County, the team that will visit Amos Mitchell Stadium on Friday night for a monster Class 3A, Region 8 showdown. The final number is a year, the most recent one in which Colbert Heights earned a win over the rival Indians.

Leathers, who has led the Wildcats to a 6-1 record (3-1 in region play) in his second season as head coach, wanted to make sure his players understood the magnitude of what they could accomplish this week.

“This is a make-history game for us,” he said on Sunday night, driving home after a long afternoon and evening spent reviewing film of Colbert County (4-2, 3-1). “In the history of this rivalry, Colbert Heights has won this game three times, and Colbert County has won thirty. That’s unbelievable. The last time Colbert Heights won was 2011. So this is an opportunity for us to make history.

“I asked our guys this afternoon, ‘What do you want people to say about you when your playing time is done and you walk out that door?’ They can already say that the 2017 team beat Red Bay for the first time in a long time and beat Sheffield for the first time in several years and started 6-1 for the first time since I don’t even know when [2010, when the Wildcats won eight of their first nine games before losing to—guess who—Colbert County 34-31 in the regular season finale]. But this is an opportunity for these guys to really leave their mark on the program.”

It’s also a chance for the Wildcats to all but assure themselves of their first playoff berth since 2011 and remain in the hunt for a Region 8 championship. Leathers understands, though, that beating Colbert County for just the fourth time ever would mean so much more to folks on The Mountain.

“This is the kind of game you play football for,” he said. “As a coach, it’s the kind of game you coach for. It’s a true competitor’s dream. We’re both in the same county, the same school system. We play each other in the area tournament, in every sport. Colbert County has a good football team, and they’re coming to our place. We’ve got a good team, too.

“I think we’ll have an even bigger crowd than we had last week for homecoming. Our side will be full, and you know Colbert County will bring a bunch of people, too. It’ll be packed out. I’m expecting a playoff atmosphere.”

Friday night will undoubtedly bring a good gate; but will it also bring a good game? After all, since beating the Indians 26-6 back in 2011, the Wildcats have dropped the last five meetings by an aggregate margin of 198-25. Last year’s 41-0 loss in Leighton matched the most lop-sided defeat Colbert Heights has suffered in the series since Colbert County won the very first meeting 49-0 in 1970.

If the Wildcats are to buck that recent trend, Leathers said they’ll have to overcome a significant psychological hurdle first.

“Everybody likes to talk about athleticism,” he said, “and it’s important. But you’re always gonna have players on your team who aren’t as athletic as other players on your team or as athletic as players on the other team. That’s part of it. But what people don’t talk about nearly as much is the mental side of things, the psychological side. You have to believe you can win the game. And just saying you believe you can win the game is not enough. Your actions will tell whether or not you really believe you can win.

“Last year we had a pretty good team, and we went over there and got beat 41-0. Colbert County was really good, but I didn’t think they were 41-0 better than us. We just didn’t compete at a high level. When you really believe you can win the game, that’s what gives you the motivation to compete at a high level on every play, to give max effort on every play.

“One hundred percent effort is all we can give. If we can look back on it and say we did everything we could to try and win that football game, then that’s all we can ask for.”

The Wildcats will once again be at a disadvantage athlete-wise—as they virtually always are against Colbert County. But the Indians could be down one particularly special athlete on Friday night. Dynamic senior tailback Kobi McCoy, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards in the first five games of the season, sat out last Friday’s game against Clements due to what first-year head coach Brett Mask termed a violation of team rules.

Mask told the TimesDaily that McCoy’s status for this week was unclear, but the Indians didn’t seem to miss him much against Clements, getting 158 yards rushing and three total touchdowns from 6’0, 235-pound senior back Chance Bates and 113 yards rushing from J’Daryus Nance in a 34-7 rout.

“They didn’t miss a beat,” Leathers said. “They ran the ball just as well without [McCoy] as they did with him. He’s an exceptional athlete, no doubt. I coached against [current Auburn tailback] Kerryon Johnson when he was at Madison Academy, and Kerryon was a phenom. Kobi McCoy is the best athlete at the running back position that we’ve seen since Kerryon, but Colbert County is not a one-man show by any means.

“Chance Bates is an exceptional player, a Division One prospect. He might be a tenth [of a second] slower than McCoy, but he’s a bruiser. He’s hard to tackle. And they have other good backs, too. We’ll have to be in the right spot defensively and play with great effort.”

Leathers said that kind of effort was largely missing in last Friday’s lackluster homecoming win over Elkmont. The Red Devils, whose 1-5 start to the season included a 50-6 rout at the hands of Colbert County, scored a late touchdown to cut Colbert Heights’ lead to 15-13, but senior safety Kevin Shaw broke up a two-point pass in the end zone and the Wildcats held on for the win—albeit one that wasn’t very satisfying.

“After the game, our guys felt like we had lost,” Leathers said. “The coaches felt the same way. We had issues with turnovers, with effort and with execution. We just weren’t focused, which can happen on homecoming. There’s so much other stuff going on that can be a distraction.

“We were glad to get to 6-1, but we also understand that if we keep playing like that, we won’t win another game. We’ll finish 6-4, and that’s not where we want to be.”

The Wildcats lost two second-half fumbles deep in Elkmont territory, but they did finish the game with 269 rushing yards on 43 attempts. Senior fullback Dylan Chandler ran for 103 yards on 14 carries, and Shaw, the team’s senior quarterback, added 72 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts. Braden McCaig and Chandler Willis carried five times apiece and combined to rush for 79 yards.

For the season, Shaw has rushed for 621 yards and five touchdowns on 105 attempts, and Chandler has run for 507 yards and a team-high 12 scores on 84 carries. Shaw has only attempted 47 passes (completing 21 for 322 yards and three touchdowns), but the Wildcats will likely need a balanced and complete offensive effort to put enough points on the board against a talented Colbert County defense that has held three of four region opponents to single digits.

“They’re very fast and very physical,” said Leathers, who served as offensive coordinator at Lexington for four years prior to taking over the Wildcat program in 2016. “They fly to the football, and they don’t let up when they get there. Chance Bates is an exceptional linebacker. I’ve been coaching against him for four years now. He’s outstanding.”

The Colbert Heights defense has been outstanding this season as well, holding opponents to just 12.1 points per game. Senior linebackers Chandler (57 tackles, including seven for a loss), Korey Saint (54 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and Brendan Borden (47 tackles, three for loss) lead the way, along with senior defensive end Bud Pratt, who made a team-high nine tackles last week and now has 43 (including 5.5 for loss) on the season.

The only team to have any real offensive success against the Wildcats was West Morgan, which scored 45 points in a Week 4 win. Colbert County can relate; the Indians got burned by the Rebels, too, in a 42-41 loss in Leighton the following week.

Colbert County’s only other loss to date came against Class 4A rival Deshler, 35-20 two weeks ago.

“Colbert County has a really good football team,” Leathers said. “We’ll have to play our best game of the year to beat them. Our goal is to come out and compete at a high level on every single play. Regardless of what happens on a certain play, we have to be able to compartmentalize it and erase it and move on to the next play. They’re gonna get their yards, and they’re gonna make their plays. Any team with the type of dynamic players they have is gonna make plays. We just have to keep fighting.

“We’ll compete at a high level on every single play and see what happens.”

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