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Wildcats not looking past first-round matchup with Locust Fork

Taylor Leathers heard it from a couple of people at church on Sunday morning. Then he heard it again at the local gas station that afternoon. Everywhere he went, it seemed, he fielded some version of the same question.

‘After Locust Fork, where do we go?’

Leathers knows his Colbert Heights football players are hearing the same thing. And that’s what worries him. Because, in the playoffs, the quickest way to get left behind is to start looking ahead.

“The last thing we need to do is be talking about or making plans for the following week,” said Leathers, whose Wildcats will host Locust Fork in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs on Thursday night. “I told our guys, ‘Don’t buy into the things you’re hearing.’ Their parents love them, and the community loves them. Those people mean well. And they’re excited. But the fact is we don’t go anywhere. The only thing on our minds is playing forty-eight minutes of football against Locust Fork.

“After we take care of that, we’ll look ahead.”

It’s hard to blame folks in Colbert Heights for feeling a bit frisky these days. The Wildcats won their final six games to finish 9-1 in the regular season for just the third time in the program’s 52-year history, earning the No. 2 seed in Region 8 along the way. They’re in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and only the 13th time ever; only three of the previous 12 playoff teams at Colbert Heights made it out of the first round, and none made it past the second.

This Wildcat team, powered by a physical ground game on offense and a veteran front seven on defense, certainly has the potential to make a deep run—but Leathers understands the danger of looking past Thursday night.

“The playoffs have a way of slapping you in the face,” he said on Sunday evening. “There are thirty-two teams in 3A football who still get to practice. Sixteen of them are in the north. After this week’s games, eight of those teams will feel like they just got slapped in the face. The season is gonna end like a light bulb going off—instantly. As soon as that horn blows, it’s over.

“That’s the difference between the regular season and the playoffs. If you know you’re not in, then you know that Week 10 game is it, so everybody’s hugging each other and you’re sort of prepared for it to end. In the playoffs, you don’t know, especially in those close games that go down to the wire. All of a sudden, boom, that thing’s over, and either your season just ended or you’re elated. Eight of these teams in the north are gonna be elated.

“I told our guys today in the film room, ‘I don’t want this to be the last time we meet.’ They looked at me like, ‘Wow, Coach, I can see where you’re coming from.’”

Leathers came to Colbert Heights from Lexington, where he was the offensive coordinator for Golden Bear teams that lost four straight first-round road games from 2012-15. He knows what it’s like to feel that slap in the face. None of his current players with the Wildcats have ever experienced playoff football, so he spent the better part of the bye week last week trying to prepare them for the urgency of the postseason.

“One thing I can guarantee you about the playoffs—and I was fortunate enough to go four years in a row—is that everybody gives great effort,” Leathers said. “In the regular season, you might get up on some team late in the game, and they may give up and say, ‘Let’s go to next week’ The playoffs are do or die, and everybody you play is gonna give great effort. They’re gonna give you forty-eight minutes. They’re playing for their life, and we should play for our life, to keep our season alive.”

Leathers doesn’t want his players looking ahead, but he doesn’t want them looking back either. That 9-1 regular season (which included wins over Red Bay, Lexington, Sheffield, Colbert County and Lauderdale County, five teams against whom the Wildcats had posted a collective 2-25 record over the previous six years) was nice; heck, it was downright historic. But it won’t count for much of anything on Thursday night at Amos Mitchell Stadium. For that matter, neither will the fact that Locust Fork (the No. 3 seed out of Region 6) finished the regular season 4-6, losing three of their final five games by 20-plus points.

A new season starts on Thursday night. And it lasts 48 minutes.

“Records are out the window,” Leathers said on Sunday. “When I talk about us, we’re 0-0. Locust Fork is 0-0. What teenagers wanna do is look and see, ‘What was their record?’ But regular season record doesn’t matter at this point. They’re a playoff team.

“We’ve got eighteen seniors on this team. I asked our seniors today, ‘Have we had some pretty good teams around here the last few years?’ They said, ‘Yes sir.’ And I reminded them that none of those teams made the playoffs. Locust Fork made it. If they’re in, they’re a playoff team, regardless of record.”

When Leathers broke down film of the Hornets, he saw a team similar to the one he used to coach.

“If I was to compare Locust Fork to anybody on our schedule, their offensive sets are similar to what we see out of Lexington,” Leathers said. “They run the option. They’re double-slot, double-wing, with a lot of jet sweeps, buck sweeps and traps. Their option is built around Wing-T principles, so you see a lot of jet, buck, trap and belly.

“They try and control the ball and control the clock. They’re a huddle team, and they snap the ball late. They play that brand of football.”

That brand of football happens to be right in Leathers’ wheelhouse. His offenses at Lexington ran the triple-option, and he’s transformed Colbert Heights into a physical, hard-hitting, line-of-scrimmage kind of team in just two short years.

“I think it’s a really good matchup for us, as far as their type of kids versus our type of kids,” Leathers said. “I like what I see on film with what they’re doing. They’re a physical team, similar to the way we like to play the game. I don’t know a lot about Locust Fork, but it seems like more of a rural community, really similar to Colbert Heights. Their kids are similar to ours, and what they’re doing is similar to the way we play the game of football.

“They’re definitely not a spread, up-tempo team that throws it all over the field. They’re the opposite of that.”

The Wildcats have thrived this season largely because of how well they’ve played in the trenches. An offensive line featuring senior Cain Phifer at left tackle, senior Chasson Scott at left guard, senior Isaac Gipson at center, senior Brannon Bradford at right guard and junior Tyler Tubbs at right tackle has cleared the way for senior fullback Dylan Chandler to rush for 958 yards and 17 touchdowns on 149 attempts. Senior quarterback Kevin Shaw has also been a major factor in the ground game, running 146 times for 809 yards and seven scores.

Leathers said his team’s veteran O-line will be challenged by Locust Fork’s big defensive front.

“They play a four-three, and they’re big on the defensive line,” Leathers said. “Their defensive tackle is 6’4, 280. He’s a really big guy. And they’ve got another guy who’s listed at 6’4, 240.”

On the other side of the ball, a Wildcat defense yielding only 10.7 points per game is led by a stout 4-4 front that should be well suited to control the Hornets’ ground-centered attack. Phifer is joined on the interior of the D-line by Isaiah Miller, with Tubbs at right end and senior Bud Pratt (61 tackles, including 8.5 for loss) at left end.

Leathers said the ability of outside linebackers Chandler (team-high 76 tackles, including 12 for a loss) and fellow senior Korey Saint (69 tackles) to set the edge will be critical on Thursday.

“Setting the edge with our outside linebackers and stopping the jet sweep will be key,” Leathers said. “We can’t get trapped either. They hang their hat on the jet and the trap. We’ll have to be sound on the option in all phases. Being able to control the line of scrimmage will be the key to the game on both sides of the football.

“We’ve done a good job with ball security in the second half of the season. We’ll have to continue to do that. Against this caliber of team, you can’t turn the ball over and give them extra possessions. We want to match their physicality and impose our will on them and play with passion and drive for forty-eight minutes.”

That’s what one of the most successful seasons in program history has earned the Wildcats—48 more minutes of football. And they plan to make it count.

“I’m certainly proud of what these players have accomplished so far this year,” Leathers said. “I’m also so driven as a person that I believe that we did all that to be right here. Those things will not be forgotten. Those are there, written down, and they’ll be there for the history of the football program at Colbert Heights. But I would say that we did all that to be doing what we’re doing right now.

“We need to be focused on right now. This is Amos Mitchell Stadium. They’re coming to our place. Our goal is to play with intense passion for forty-eight minutes and prove that we’re the best team out on that field.”

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