Dramatic turnaround puts Briarfield in playoffs

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 26, 2000

When the MPSA playoffs open on Friday, two of the season’s biggest surprises for different reasons will square off in a first-round matchup.

Briarfield (7-3), which has gone 1-19 over the last two seasons, hopes to continue its remarkable turnaround with a first-round playoff win against Conference 5-A champion Mount Olive, which has been the state runner-up each of the last two seasons but slipped to 4-6 this time around.

“At this point everybody is good,” Briarfield coach Jay Murphree said. “They certainly have the advantage on experience as far as the playoffs are concerned.”

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But some Briarfield players also bring playoff experience into the game. Before the Rebels were stumbling, they were soaring, going 10-2 in 1997 to wrap up a run of four straight playoff seasons.

Murphree was an assistant under Lance Prine during Briarfield’s glory days and many of the seniors on this team were freshmen on the 1997 squad.

The players have shown some excitement during the season.

“The Rebels are back,” tailback Tony Howard exclaimed after his five-touchdown performance helped Briarfield knock off Porters Chapel 41-28 on Sept. 15.

Howard has been a major part of Briarfield’s turnaround. A Vicksburg Post All-Area selection a season ago, he has rushed for 1,312 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior campaign. He also has two TD receptions.

“He’s definitely one of the guys we go to. But all of our backs are doing extremely well this year,” Murphree said, pointing out that quarterback Phillip Tomlinson is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry and the Rebels’ other running backs are averaging more than 5 yards a carry.

They could be in for a big night against Mount Olive, which has been a surprise for the wrong reasons. The Eagles, who were undefeated last season until losing the state title game to Wayne, finished under .500 this season.

Mount Olive’s defense has also been sub-par, giving up nearly 20 points per game this season after allowing just a touchdown a game last year.

Murphree said that doesn’t make them any less dangerous, however.

“Their offensive line is extremely big. Both of their running backs are 200-plus pounds and they’re going to run it right at us,” Murphree said. “Our defense is going to have to have a good game.”

Tri-County, a playoff regular, took a step back last season with a quick first-round exit against Pine Hills. Now, coach Bo Milton is hoping his team learned a lesson from that loss and is ready to take two steps forward this time around.

“Last year we were young and inexperienced. We’ve got a lot of seniors on this team that have been in the playoffs now,” Milton said. “Maybe that will give us a little bit of an advantage and help us win these games and go deep into the playoffs.”

Along with experience, Tri-County (9-1), the Conference 4-A champion, will use a pounding rushing attack that has gained over 2,000 yards this season but whose leading rusher, Jeff Johnson, has only 572, along with 10 touchdowns.

“We spread it around,” Milton said.

Huntington (6-4) counters with a strong rushing game of its own, anchored by a big offensive line.

“They’ve got a lot of good size on the offensive and defensive fronts. They have three of the best running backs we’ve seen this year as a group,” Milton said. “We’ve just got to be physical up front and slow them down.”

Milton added that his team has been playing well over the last six weeks, but will face a tough test Friday night.

“This is a real good team we’re playing,” he said. “Probably as good a team as we’ve faced in the last four or five weeks, so we’ve got to show up and play.”

Tallulah Academy, last season’s South State runner-up, has a tough road through the playoffs that got even tougher with a pair of key injuries.

The Trojans (8-2), who made the playoffs as a wild-card, travel to face Conference 1-A champion West Memphis (8-2) a nearly four-hour drive and they’ll be without the services of starting tailback Edwin Fortenberry, who suffered a broken kneecap in last week’s 25-6, season-ending loss to Briarfield.

It’s also unclear how effective fullback Ryan Baker will be. Baker sprained an ankle in the Briarfield game and is about “75 percent,” coach I.T. Crothers said. Baker and Fortenberry have combined for more than 1,000 yards and 15 TDs.

“With both of them out, we may have to change it up and go to the air a little bit more than we normally would,” Crothers said.

Then there’s the added problem of West Memphis’ size. They played in Academy-AA last season and are also big physically.

“They’re awfully big. They’ve got five players over 200 pounds,” Crothers said. “They’ve got some monsters on the line.”

Even if Tallulah overcomes West Memphis, the road doesn’t get any easier in round two a matchup with either defending state champion Wayne (7-3) or Humphreys (9-1) awaits.

“We’ll be lucky to stay with (West Memphis),” he said.