The road to the playoffs will go through Tupelo.
That’s the sentiment Columbus High School football coach Tony Stanford has shared with his players ever since they started preparations for the 2011 season.
The way Stanford sees it, the Golden Wave, who have won the past five meetings against the Falcons, have played a key role in the slow starts in region play that have dampened his team’s chances of reaching the playoffs.
Stanford hopes this season will be different.
With a senior-laden team that has the confidence from victories against Aberdeen, West Point, and New Hope, Columbus will try to start the Class 6A, Region 1 season quickly when it plays host to Tupelo at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“I told them we went 3-1 in the preseason and now we have the real games starting,” said Stanford, who is in his second season as head coach at the school. “We have to be ready to play every week if we want to play the playoffs.”
Tupelo defeated Columbus 10-6 in 2009 and 21-14 in 2010 in Tupelo. Stanford feels the Falcons could have won both games and that the losses put those teams on bad footing. In fact, the loss was the first of three in a row in the region to start each season.
Stanford, though, feels this team is different. Not only does he feel all of the players have truly “bought in” to the program’s philosophy and way of doing things, but he also feels the defense is not as apt to be as generous giving up the big play.
It remains to be seen if a secondary led by senior Byke Cockrell will be as stingy as can be Friday night, but Stanford feels his team will be ready after it hurt itself with too many mistakes last week against Louisville.
Stanford knows Tupelo (2-2) will pose a challenge, especially if junior running back junior running back Ashton Shumpert is healthy. Shumpert was injured in a season-opening 40-11 loss to Class 4A power Lafayette. He didn’t play in a 23-22 victory against Center Hill, a 10-7 loss to Starkville, and a 23-8 victory against Shannon on Sept. 9.
“He makes them a different team,” Stanford said.
Stanford knows the Falcons also will have to contain quarterback Luke Hobson and a group of talented wide receivers that includes Josh Hamilton, Matt McIntosh, and Zach Johnson. He feels his defense will be up to the task.
“I can’t complain about the defense because it has kept us in games,” Stanford said. “I thought we played real well (on defense in a 22-10 loss to Louisville last week). Louisville kept the field position the whole game, and it is hard to beat anybody when that happens.”
But Stanford feels the Falcons have re-focused from that loss and are ready to start clicking on offense. He said his players know it will be crucial to get as many wins as possible against region front-runners like Tupelo, Southaven, Olive Branch, and two-time defending state champion South Panola. The top four teams in the eight-team region, which welcomes Grenada to replace Starkville, which dropped down to Class 5A, will advance to the playoffs.
Stanford realizes that will be a challenge for a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007 and that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2005, but he is convinced this group can do it.
“I think we’re starting to make people believers that we’re going to play hard all of the time and we’re going to do the right things it takes to win,” Stanford said.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.