Columbus High School junior Kylin Hill understands his place on the recruiting landscape in the state of Mississippi.
Rated the state’s second-best running back prospect by Scout, Hill is piling up the offers. As the accolades, highlight tapes and victories mount, the expectations are only getting higher.
At 7 p.m. Friday in Batesville, Hill and Columbus will look to take down top-ranked South Panola and win its first region championship.
Columbus (7-2, 5-0 Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 1) and South Panola (9-0, 5-0) already have clinched first-round playoff games Nov. 13 at home. The winner of Friday’s game will be Region 1’s top seed and will win the region championship.
“Our goal is to compete for a state championship,” Hill said. “We have been lightly regarded around the state. That has allowed us to sneak up on people.”
The lightly regarded label is slowly being discarded.
Columbus entered The Clarion-Ledger’s Super 10 at No. 9 this week. Mississippi Gridiron has Columbus ranked 10th in the state. The Associated Press has Columbus ranked No. 10.
Columbus is entering unchartered territory. Second-year coach Randal Montgomery admits his club might be ahead of schedule.
“We have a lot of young players in a lot of places on the football field,” Montgomery said. “The kids have bought in. They are not fazed by things. The bigger the game, the better they play. We have a comfort level about what we are trying to do. I think we are a great practicing team. I think we do a great job of creating a game plan and working on it from Monday through Thursday.
“When the game starts, the kids have a great amount of confidence because they know what they are supposed to do.”
To pull the upset Friday and to achieve postseason success, Columbus will need to continue to improve offensively. Columbus come a long way since a 25-8 loss to Noxubee County in the second week of the season. Columbus had six turnovers in the loss. In a 27-6 victory against New Hope the next week, Columbus went scoreless in seven possessions in New Hope territory.
Protecting the ball and finishing drives was the story entering region play. The Falcons have improved in both areas, as evidenced by the fact that they are beating region opponents by an average of more than 18 points per game. After rallying to defeat DeSoto Central at the wire in the region opener, Columbus has beaten Tupelo, Horn Lake, Southaven, and Olive Branch by an average margin of 23 points.
Columbus also has gotten healthy in its run. While trying to get healthy, the squad has leaned on Hill, who has rushed for 1,193 yards and nine touchdowns. Those totals include back-to-back three-rushing touchdown games. He has eclipsed the 100-yard mark six times.
The return of junior Kendre Conner has the running game back at full force. Conner (604 yards, six touchdowns) but missed two games and had only one carry in a third game while nursing an ankle injury. After the win against Olive Branch, Conner said he was 100 percent and ready to do what it takes to get the team its first region title.
“We are a different team when Kendre and Kylin are back there at the same time,” Montgomery said. “They have different running styles and have to be brought down different ways. At the same time, they are both physical backs. They are big and they are bruising. You don’t see them go down on the initial tackle very often.”
The large leads in several region games have allowed Montgomery to bring the passing game along at a quicker pace. The Falcons prefer to run the ball, but they know they will need to throw the ball to take the next step.
Junior quarterback C.J. Gholar is 68 of 136 for 888 yards. He has four touchdowns and seven interceptions. However, he said his decision-making has improved from last season.
“The biggest thing the coaches have taught me is I don’t have to win the game myself,” Gholar said. “Every pass play doesn’t have to go for a touchdown. Not every ball has to be thrown. I feel a lot better about my job and what I am being asked to do. Whether it’s run or throw or whether it’s how to protect the football better, I think both my coaches and teammates have a lot of confidence in me.
“It’s a good feeling when you go out there and you know the guys have your backs.”
Some have been waiting for the old Columbus to re-surface. Instead, the group of doubters has shrunk every week. People watch the highlights and see the play-making ability of Hill, the decision-making of Gholar, and one of Class 6A’s premier defenses.
Columbus makes up for its lack of big-game experience with unbridled enthusiasm.
“We play the game because it’s fun,” Hill said. “We aren’t going to be intimidated by anybody. When we leave the locker room, it’s with the mind-set to win the game. It really doesn’t matter who we are playing.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.