Columbus High School football coach Tony Stanford doesn’t mind coming right out and saying it.
“I don’t think we’re playing well,” Stanford said earlier this week as his team continued to prepare for its next game against Clinton. “We haven’t played well for two weeks, and we played probably as well as we have in a long time against West Point. The last two weeks we haven’t played well.”
The high-water mark for any team in the state of Mississippi usually is a victory against West Point. When an opponent beats the Green Wave like the Falcons did (41-14 on Sept. 13), it is bound to raise a few eyebrows and create reason for confidence. In Columbus’ case, Stanford believes that victory may have led to his players becoming a little overconfident, which translated into the team’s performance the past two weeks in losses to Louisville and to Starkville.
Stanford hopes Columbus (2-3, 0-1 Class 6A, Region 2) can change its momentum at 7 tonight when it plays host to Clinton (1-4, 0-1) in another region game.
Stanford acknowledges something is wrong with his team, so he said he met with his seniors and juniors to try to find a solution to the problem.
“We’re not playing up to our potential, and we’re not doing the things we have done in the past to win ballgames,” Stanford said. “This week has been dedicated to straightening out our own problems.”
Stanford said the players were honest in the meeting and told him they were playing as individuals and not as a team, that they weren’t giving everything they had, and had their minds on other things. He said he wasn’t surprised by the statements and said everyone has to show up every day ready to play football and then take care of business on Friday nights. He said the team has a lot of pride and it knows it isn’t playing where it needs to be.
“I think they are going to play a real good ballgame,” Stanford said. “I just think they have their minds into it. The movement in practice looks a lot quicker and intense than what we have been seeing.”
Stanford cited the final quarter against New Hope, in which Columbus rallied to secure a 20-16 victory, and the four quarters against West Point as the five best periods the team has played. He said he saw intensity and effort at maximum levels in each of those quarters. The challenge for the Falcons is to find a way to deliver similar efforts the rest of the way. Columbus will complete the regular season with region games against Northwest Rankin, Greenville-Weston, Madison Central, Jackson Murrah, and Warren Central, so it can control its playoff destiny if it changes course.
“They have the ability,” Stanford said. “That is what makes me mad. They have the ability to really have a good football team. It just hasn’t happened. I think some of them may have read their name too many times and they were real good and they thought the just had to show up and play. You have to produce on the field, no matter how good you are.”
On paper, Clinton appears to be an ideal opponent to help Columbus regroup. A closer look reveals Clinton has played just as difficult a schedule as Columbus. The Arrows have lost to Brandon, the state’s top-raked team, Meridian, Madison Central, and Pearl. Its only victory came against Ridgeland.
Stanford hopes the seniors are mature enough not to be fooled by Clinton’s record. He also hopes they will set the tone tonight to help the team get back on the playoff track.
“Your football team is only as good as your seniors,” Stanford said. “Until them seniors let everyone else know that we expect this and we’re going to work our butts off to get to where we want to be, y’all need to get in there with us. That is when everything changes.
“I told them in the meeting the other day, I cannot believe the seven, eight, 10 players we lost from last year made that much of a difference. There was a slew of juniors playing last year. Those juniors are seniors now, and we ought to be playing at a high level. They have got to do it.”
Park Place Christian (0-5) at Immanuel Christian (3-3)
The final step will have to wait a few weeks.
Until its regular-season finale against Deer Creek Academy on Oct. 25, Greg Watkins and the Rams will take solace in the fact they control their destiny. A 16-6 victory last week against Greenville Christian last week helped Immanuel Christian improve to 2-0 in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class A Region 2. Watkins hopes his team’s tonight and ones the next two weeks against West Memphis Christian and Newton County Academy will help prepare his squad to take the final step against Deer Creek Academy. A victory in that game will secure the top spot in the region and wrap up a playoff spot. A loss would create uncertainty about Immanuel Christian’s playoff fate and seeding.
Watkins wants the Rams to keep winning so they can avoid all of that talk.
“We played a lot better defensive game against Greenville Christian, and that’s where we have to improve every week,” Watkins said. “Offensively, we had a few turnovers that hurt us. We had more than 300 yards but only two touchdowns, so we have to take advantage of situations and get the ball into the end zone. Homecoming (tonight) is always a distraction, and we hope we’re focused and ready to play and against the next two teams we have. Hopefully, those games can get us ready for Deer Creek.”
With only two seniors who played on last season’s team, Watkins has seen his team youth and inexperience in action at times. He was pleased with his team’s defensive effort last week and hopes it is a sign the Rams are prepared to stay focused on what they need to do to realize their goal and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Victory Christian (4-2) at New Life Academy (0-4)
A loss to an archrival never is helpful.
Chris Hamm would have loved to have left Cottondale, Ala., with a victory last week. But the Victory Christian coach gained a valuable teaching point in a 38-32 triple-overtime loss to Tuscaloosa Christian. The silver lining was the loss came in the first or two regular-season meetings. The teams will meet again Oct. 18 in Columbus in a game that will count in the Christian Football Association standings.
As it stands tonight, as Victory Christian prepares to play CFA rival New Life in a game that doesn’t count toward the league standings, is 2-0 and controls its ability to earn the top seed and the right to play hist to a first-round playoff game.
First, though, Hamm wants to address that lack of focus and emotion he saw from his team for the better part of three quarters last week. Still, the Rams rallied thanks to a touchdown by Anthony Sharp and a two-point conversion. The teams went scoreless in the first two OT periods before Victory Christian failed to score and Tuscaloosa Christian won the game in the third extra session.
“The team execution on that night was not at all what it has been,” Hamm said. “Part of that was a little stiffer competition. The other part of it was we were not at the top of our game. We have talked about taking what we have learned from that game and taking the reprieve. We want to make good on that.”
Sharp agreed the Rams didn’t have the necessary focus in the first half. He said the team came out “flat” against Tuscaloosa Christian. Hamm said the team might have reacted that way because it knew Tabernacle, a team Victory Christian defeated, beat Tuscaloosa Christian. Sharp said Victory Christian doesn’t want to forget the loss while it focuses on its next challenges.
“We don’t need to slip up before we play them again,” Sharp said, “so it is focused around them, but these games still are vital to what we want to accomplish.”
Victories against First Assembly next week and against Tuscaloosa Christian will wrap up the CFA regular-season title for Victory Christian. Hamm admits Tuscaloosa Christian might change everything it did in the first meeting, which could lay waste to anything his team learned from the first game. That’s where that focus comes in. Hamm said he has addressed that by backing off his team’s practice schedule during the week given he has only 14-17 players and that the squad has to play nine straight weeks in the regular season. Two more weeks would make it 11 weeks in a row, but Hamm and the Rams won’t look that far ahead.
“I am anxious to see how they bounce back,” Hamm said. “They seem to be a resilient bunch. The core of this group doesn’t do a lot of rah-rah stuff, so they don’t get too high. They haven’t seemed to get too low, either. We have had only one other loss, so we will see (how they bounce back). I think it’s going to be like it was the last time following a loss (a 63-20 victory against Tabernacle).”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.