By Evan Grice
Former 16-time World Heavyweight champion Ric Flair once said “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
This week, the Piedmont Wildcats (3-3, 2-1) will get their chance to knock off the defending state champions in the Clinton Red Tornadoes (4-2, 2-1), who enter ranked No. 4 in the state in Class 4A with kickoff set for Friday night at 7:30 p.m. from Stout Field in Piedmont.
As it stands currently in the district 4A-1 standings, the Wildcats are in prime position to make the playoffs, as they are tied for third place with Clinton right now at 2-1 in the district, with Elgin and Weatherford both lurking at 1-2 right now, tied for the final playoff spot.
Woodward and Anadarko are tied for the district lead at 3-0, with these teams facing one another Friday night for the district lead.
The playoff situation is something that hasn’t been lost on head coach Craig Church and his players either as they approach the stretch run of the season.
“We have been talking to the kids and asking them ‘How focused can you be for four weeks?’” Church said. “On our whiteboard in the locker room, we have a “playoff roadmap” and we’ve been keeping tabs on where this map could lead after a win or loss. These last four games are going to have a dramatic effect on where our playoff journey is going to go.”
“If you want to be the champion, you have to defeat the champion. This is a huge game for our program and these kids.”
Clinton’s defense of their state title hit a speed bump last week against top-ranked Anadarko, when the Red Tornadoes suffered a 35-7 defeat to the Warriors at home. While Piedmont had its biggest offensive output of the season in a 52-0 drumming of Elk City on the road.
However, a look between the stats of the Anadarko game will show CHS was slightly shorthanded, as they were missing starting wide receiver Devon Mitchell, who was missing due to a knee injury, along with running back Marquiz Simpkins, who was playing with an ankle injury he suffered against Elgin two weeks ago.
For the season, Simpkins has rushed for 900 yards on 66 carries, averaging 13.6 yards per carry. He has also totaled nine touchdowns on the season, along with rushing for more than 200 yards twice this season against Heritage Hall and Weatherford. Last week against AHS was the first game this season in which Simpkins didn’t reach the 100 yard mark, as he was held to 19 yards on 10 carries.
Clinton though has plenty of reserves when it comes to the running back position other than just Simpkins.
Donivien Brown will be more than willing to carry the load for the Red Tornadoes if need be, as he enters this week with 490 yards rushing on 48 carries, averaging 10.2 yards per carry.
Jevon Jefferson is another threat on the ground for the Red Tornadoes, as he is the third leading rusher for Clinton this season, averaging 6.5 yards per carry for a season total of 317 yards on 49 carries. His game-high for the season came against Heritage Hall, when he accounted for 211 yards and four touchdowns.
“Clinton is a well-coached and well-disciplined team,” Church said. “They have a very physical running attack with two of the best running backs in the state. On the defensive side of the ball, they are disciplined as well, and have some excellent tacklers to go with it.”
Piedmont will respond with a strong running attack of its own, led by Darrius Burris, who racked up 174 yards and four touchdowns last week against Elk City, the fourth time this season the senior had gone over 100 yards rushing. Blakely Liebmann will also look to carry the load for the Wildcats, as he has scored at least one touchdown in the past three games.
Mitchell meanwhile has totaled six catches this season for a total of 32 yards with one touchdown, averaging 5.3 yards per catch. In the last three games though, Mitchell has only registered one catch for a total of nine yards.
There’s also the small matter of Mitchell leading the Red Tornadoes with four interceptions this season, including a pick six in the district opener against Weatherford.
But don’t try to tell Coach Church and his staff the Red Tornadoes are going to be shorthanded for this week by any stretch of the imagination.
“We expect Clinton to be at full speed no matter what,” Church said about the Red Tornadoes injuries. “They are champions for a reason, and understand how to overcome games like the one they had against Anadarko. At the same time, they also know how to deal with injuries, and we expect them to be at their best. However, we’re working to make sure we’re at our best for this game as well.”
At the quarterback position, Clinton started the season with Blake Canton at the helm, before switching to Mitchell Mcatee against Southeast. Mcatee has totaled 162 yards passing on 14-of-34 attempts, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Piedmont enters this contest on the heels of a two-game winning streak with wins over Cache and Elk City, something that Coach Church said can be credited to a better work ethic from his players during practice.
“These kids have been coming to work during practice the past few weeks,” he said. “It’s definitely an improved mental change overall. They’ve been focusing more in meetings and giving better effort during practice, which is something I’m very proud to see out of them.”