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Wildcats make history again, advance with first-ever playoff shutout

COLBERT HEIGHTS - The defining play of Colbert Heights’ first playoff win in a decade began innocently enough.

With roughly a minute gone by in the third quarter and the Wildcats clinging to a 7-0 lead over Locust Fork on Thursday night, senior quarterback Kevin Shaw took the snap from the Hornet 39-yard line and darted up the field on a keeper. Almost immediately, Shaw was grabbed by linebacker Hunter Neely, who tried his best to reach in and pry the football loose.

The 6’3, 185-pound Shaw kept fighting his way forward, pulling Neely along with him, until both players were enveloped by a swarm of bodies, seemingly huddling together for warmth on a cold November night at Amos Mitchell Stadium. The play appeared dead in the water after about a five-yard gain, but Shaw refused to go down, so the rugby scrum continued.

Little by little, the mass of humanity—at least ten to twelve bodies strong by this point—kept moving…and moving…and moving, gathering momentum like a snowball rolling downhill. Finally, Shaw burst from the pile and lunged forward to the 22-yard line, squeezing every last inch out of one of the more hard-earned 17-yard gains you’ll ever see.

“That wasn’t me,” Shaw would later say. “That was everybody. It was great effort by everybody.”

The play epitomized what second-year head coach Taylor Leathers had hoped to see from his offense after a frustrating first half.

“Give Locust Fork credit,” Leathers said. “They played well defensively and did some things that took away some of what we wanted to do. But we adjusted. I really challenged our offensive line at the half to take over and dominate the game at the line of scrimmage.

“That play showed our guys that if we could get a hat on a hat and go knee-to-knee and toe-to-toe with them, we could take control of the game up front.”

On the very next snap, senior fullback Dylan Chandler ripped right through a demoralized Hornet defense for a 22-yard touchdown run, his second of the night and 19th of the season. Blane Howard tacked on the extra point to make it 14-0 with 10:17 left in the third, and the Wildcats never looked back. They drove 80 yards for another touchdown on their next drive and then added a late pick-six by Shaw, punching their ticket to the second round for just the fourth time in program history with a 28-0 win.

Amidst a record-setting season, Colbert Heights (10-1) made history yet again on Thursday night, recording the first playoff shutout in the program’s 52 years and matching the school record for wins previously set by the 2007 team that finished 10-2.

“First round of the playoffs, and we get a shutout,” senior linebacker Korey Saint said after the game, marveling at the scoreboard while his teammates took part in the singing of the alma mater behind him. “Amazing. To be on the varsity for five or six years and now finally get to play in a playoff game in my senior year, it’s amazing. It’s something me and these seventeen other guys won’t forget.”

Shaw, another member of the Wildcats’ 18-man senior class, echoed those sentiments.

“Crazy,” he said. “It was a big atmosphere. It’ll be a great memory.”

Wildcat fans in attendance for their team’s first playoff win since November 9, 2007, will remember another terrific defensive performance in a season full of them. Watching film of Locust Fork’s Wing-T based offense leading up to the game, Leathers pinpointed the jet sweep and the trap as the Hornets’ two bread-and-butter plays. Outside contain, he said, would be critical to stopping the jet sweep.

On the fourth snap of Locust Fork’s opening drive of the night, quarterback Eli Musso handed the ball to Neely on the jet. Saint, starting at outside linebacker in place of injured senior Brendan Borden, stormed off the edge and swallowed up Neely for a three-yard loss.

“Brendan broke his collarbone [in the team’s Week 10 game against East Lawrence], so I moved up from safety to outside linebacker,” said Saint, who ranked second on the team during the regular season with 69 tackles. “My job was to set the edge, and I was able to get in the backfield and make a play.”

He wasn’t the only one. After the Wildcats took advantage of a short field to grab a quick 7-0 lead on Chandler’s two-yard touchdown run with 7:21 left in the first quarter, the Hornets (4-7) began their second drive at their own 29-yard line. Musso tried to throw a quick screen on first down, but senior end Bud Pratt crashed through the line and rocked Musso just as he released the football, forcing an incompletion.

Two plays later, senior linebacker Bevin Foust tackled Musso a yard shy of the marker on third-and-three, and then massive senior tackle Isaiah Miller teamed with Pratt to stuff Musso’s sneak attempt for no gain on fourth-and-one.

“Our defense played outstanding tonight,” said Leathers, whose team held Locust Fork to just 201 total yards and nine first downs while making 13 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. “They really carried us through the first half while we were struggling a little bit on offense, and they continued to play well all night long. Any time you can get a shutout in the playoffs, that’s huge.”

The Wildcats failed to capitalize on the short field following the early fourth-down stop, and then Locust Fork put together its first positive drive of the night. Musso connected with Neely for gains of 16 and 24 yards, and then Neely broke off a 13-yard run down to the Colbert Heights 27. On the first play of the second quarter, however, senior defensive lineman Brannon Bradford tackled 6’0, 220-pound fullback Drew Rogers for a one-yard loss to put the Hornets in third-and-long. Musso threw incomplete twice, and Locust Fork turned the ball over on downs.

The Wildcats picked up three first downs on their ensuing possession (converting a fourth-and-one from their own 45 on a two-yard run by Chandler), but the drive stalled just across midfield and they punted. Rogers got Locust Fork moving with a 16-yard run, but a false start penalty and a tackle for no gain by Pratt and Chandler put the Hornets behind the sticks. On third-and-15 late in the first half, Musso—under heavy pressure from linebacker Riley Fuller—threw a short pass to Neely, who was promptly walloped by Foust for a six-yard loss.

Shaw found tight end Evan Norton for 13 yards to get the Wildcats’ next drive going, but an intentional grounding penalty and an incompletion forced Colbert Heights to punt. The Wildcats, who held Locust Fork to just 85 yards in the first half but gained only 101 themselves, settled for taking a 7-0 lead into the locker room.

“We started a little slow on offense,” Leathers said. “I thought overall our guys handled their first playoff game really well, but maybe our struggles on offense in the first half had a little bit to do with nervousness and just not knowing exactly how to play in a game like this.

“We’re a senior-laden team, so I reminded our guys at halftime that we didn’t want this to be the last game we played.”

Thursday night was hardly the first time the Wildcats have labored into the locker room, only to play lights-out football in the second half.

“We do that a lot,” Saint said after the game. “Sometimes we just have to come in there and get our tails chewed, and then we start to play better.”

Added Shaw, “The effort [on offense] just wasn’t where it needed to be in the first half. It was a lot better in the second half.”

From the very first snap of the third quarter (a 15-yard run by Chandler Willis on the jet sweep), the Colbert Heights offense demonstrated a greater sense of urgency. Two plays later came the signature 17-yard pile-driver by Shaw, and then Chandler dashed to the end zone to make it 14-0.

Junior defensive end Tyler Tubbs tackled Musso for a one-yard loss on third-and-10 to end Locust Fork’s next possession, and then Colbert Heights put together its most impressive drive of the night. Chandler got things rolling with an 11-yard run, and then freshman Carson Shaw scampered for 25 more down to the Hornet 24. A false start cost the Wildcats five yards, but Kevin Shaw connected with Willis for a 23-yard gain down inside the five. On third-and-goal from the one, the 6’2, 188-pound Chandler plowed into the end zone for his third touchdown of the night—and 20th of the season—to make it 21-0 with 4:23 left in the third quarter.

The Hornets moved into Colbert Heights territory on their next drive, but Fuller sacked Musso for a six-yard loss on third-and-13 to force a punt. The Wildcats fumbled the kick, setting up Locust Fork with its best field position of the night, but the Colbert Heights defense rose to the occasion yet again. Saint stopped Rogers for no gain on first down from the 20-yard line, and then Braden McCaig tackled Rogers well short of the marker on fourth-and-seven to force a turnover on downs.

Colbert Heights punted, but Shaw sealed the deal when he stepped in front of a Musso pass to record his team-leading fifth interception of the season and then delivered a highlight-reel return, running it back 55 yards to the end zone to make it 28-0 with 7:08 remaining.

Chandler put the game on ice with four carries for 34 yards on the Wildcats’ final drive; he finished the night with 116 yards and three scores on 19 attempts and now has 1,074 yards and 20 touchdowns on 165 attempts this season.

Kevin Shaw rushed 15 times for 76 yards on Thursday night, giving him 885 yards on 161 carries this year. Carson Shaw added 27 yards on three attempts, and McCaig ran three times for 23 yards.

Kevin Shaw threw for 37 yards on 3-for-6 passing. As a team, Colbert Heights rushed for 257 yards on 41 attempts, an average of 6.3 yards per carry.

Prior to Thursday night, only three teams in Colbert Heights history had ever advanced beyond the first round; all three lost in round two—to Phil Campbell in 1999, Susan Moore in 2006 and, most recently, Clay County in 2007. For these Wildcats, a date with Friday night’s winner between Weaver and Plainview awaits.

At the end of a season that has already seen a lifetime’s worth of streak-breaking and history-making, why shouldn’t the ‘Cats crash the quarterfinals for the first time ever and, in the process, become the first team in program history to win 11 games?

“I can tell you this about the playoffs,” Leathers said on Thursday night, still wet from his post-victory Gatorade shower. “The biggest jump in competition is from round one to round two. We’re gonna be down to eight teams in the north half of the state [in Class 3A], and all those are gonna be really good football teams. But I’m proud of these kids for what they’ve been able to accomplish this year. I’m grateful to God that He’s let me be a small part of it.”

Kevin Shaw, for one, can’t wait for next week to get here.

“Second round,” he said with a smile. “Here we come.”

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