The East Central football program has one more mountain to climb this season, and it’s a tall one.
If there’s one school that can be considered the preeminent Class 4A program in the state of Mississippi, it’s the one that the Hornets will be facing Saturday in Oxford – Noxubee County.
The Tigers (10-4) and Hornets (13-0) will kick off at 3 p.m. in the Class 4A state title game.
While Noxubee County is seeking its fifth state title since 2008, East Central is playing in a championship contest for the first time in program history.
“One thing that is encouraging about our kids, at no point have they every shown fear,” East Central coach Seth Smith said. “It’s a fearless group of kids. When we get off that bus on Saturday and it’s time to play, we will play them as equally hard as any opponent we’ve played. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Tyrone Shorter, who is in his seventh season as the Noxubee head coach, credits his team’s run of success to a consistent approach throughout the program.
“We believe in what we do,” he said. “It starts from our Pee Wee league. Their coaches come and visit us throughout the summer and try to implement what we do on the Pee Wee level. That continues into junior high and in the ninth grade. It’s the same system.
“Kids at Noxubee County feel like they’re supposed to play for a state championship. If you’re not in the state championship, it feels like a down year.”
Noxubee County started the season 2-4, but played a very difficult non-region schedule that included games against Class 5A North champion West Point and Class 6A North champion Starkville.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Tigers have won eight consecutive games while averaging 42.6 points during that stretch.
“We came together as a team,” Shorter said Friday. “The first part of the season, we played some tough competition. We were rotating quarterbacks at first and then decided to go with one (Armoni Clark) and move the other one to receiver.”
Clark, a senior, has been one of the more productive quarterbacks in the northern half this season, completing 60.7 percent of his passes for 2,391 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Smith expects the two key battles to be between his secondary and a talented Noxubee receiving corps and the Noxubee defensive line against his offensive line.
While Noxubee has a reputation for throwing the ball around, junior running back Jaqualyn Smith should get his hands on the ball as well. He has run 152 times for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.
“We’re going to have to be balanced,” Shorter said. “We can’t be one dimensional for this group. We plan to run the football. People think we throw the ball, but we’ve been pretty balanced if you look at our stats. That’s going to be important. We have very good receivers and we’ll try to get them involved, but we’ll also try to run the ball.”
Noxubee County has two standout receivers who have over 1,000 yards this season – senior Rashad Eades and junior Kyziah Pruitt.
Noxubee County also features a talented defensive line that sets the tone for a defense that has 47 ½ sacks this season. Senior Miles Smith, who is listed at 6-foot, 240 pounds, leads the way with 12 ½ sacks.
“We’ll have to be disciplined because they’re a well-coached football team and have a lot of talent,” Shorter said. “We’ll have to stop their run game. They do it very well.
“One good thing about it is we’ve seen teams that run a similar Wing-T offense. It’ll be a challenge for our kids to stop what they do.”
Noxubee County faced two teams that run the Wing-T in a 49-27 win at Kosciusko and a 43-13 victory over Corinth.
East Central’s Wing-T has proven much more potent than Kosciusko and Corinth this season. It also has an extra wrinkle in the passing game in 6-foot-6, 234-pound senior tight end Brad Cumbest and senior quarterback Rylee Brown.
“(Cumbest) is a great looking kid, a bid kid,” Shorter said. “He positions himself very well and he can be a problem for us. We’ve got a plan for him, but it’s going to be difficult.”
Who: East Central vs. Noxubee County
When: 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford
Radio: WPMO-1580 AM, 96.9 FM
TV: WLOX-Bounce (13.3)