By Tony Tsoukalas / Sports Writer
The Meridian Star
For Meridian High School, the road to the playoffs seemed certain at times and almost impossible at others. The preseason No.1 rated Wildcats had to claw their way to an 8-3 (5-3) record this season, good enough for third place in the Region 3-6A standings. With four games standing in the way of a state championship, the Wildcats will now face a whole new test tonight, as they travel to D'Iberville to take on the Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs.
Some would argue, Meridian has been playing in a playoff atmosphere all season. The grueling Region 3 boasts six teams with a 7-4 record or better. In any other district Natchez and Oak Grove, who both share a 7-4 record, would find themselves in the playoffs. In Region 3, the teams will be watching from a far. After falling to district-champion Petal on Oct. 19, Meridian found itself with its back against the wall. The 'Cats just worked that much harder though, clinching the playoffs by winning back-to-back games on the road at Terry and Forrest Hill.
So what did Meridian head coach Larry Weems tell his players to get ready for the game against D'Iberville tonight?
“Nothing,” Weems said. “Not a thing. If you want to advance, you have to beat the team you are lined up against that particular night. A year's worth of work is on the line. If you win you get to do it another week and if you lose you are done, our players already know that.”
D'Iberville will serve as a perfect contrast to Meridian. The Warriors offer the state's No. 2 rated defense in terms of points allowed at the 6A level. Meridian will look to test D'Iberville on offense with a high-flying spread attack, averaging 35.5 points per game.
“That's something we have always stressed here is good defense,” D'Iberville head coach Buddy Singleton said. “You put your best players on defense, and you win with defense. (Meridian) has a great running back in (Richard L. McQuarley), he's an all purpose running back that can catch it out of the backfield and runs well. Their quarterback (J-Mar Smith) is a good athlete, he's a good scrambler and throws the ball real well. We are just going to have to play good defense, and hopefully we can contain them.”
One advantage Meridian will bring into the game is its team speed. If the Warriors decide to stack the box and shutdown the Wildcat running game, Weems said his team will not hesitate to take shots down field with Smith and his receivers.
The Wildcats will, however, be without one of their key offensive threats in wide receiver Isaac Johnson. The senior, Johnson sprained a ligament in his foot during the second quarter of last week's game against Forrest Hill. While Johnson will sit out this week's game, he remains hopeful to return to action next week if Meridian advances.
“I've been talking to the players, because I don't want this to be my last game,” Johnson said. “I'm confident they can get a win and I will get to play next week.”
D'Iberville will also have to deal with a costly injury, as linebacker Cody Meadows will be sidelined for a second-straight week due to an ankle injury. Meadows was one of the Warriors leaders in tackles this season.
While all the talk is on what D'Iberville has done on the defensive side of the ball, the Warriors seldom make mistakes on the offense. D'Iberville will use a solid rushing attack Friday night and limit turnovers, as it looks to pound the ball and sustain long drives against the Wildcats.
“They don't mess up a lot,” Weems said. “They do what they do. They just get behind their big linemen, and their backs are strong. They just run it right at you.”
After two-straight wins, Weems and the Wildcats know they can't afford to take their foot off the pedal, as they look to add a fourth state championship to the trophy case.
“It's just a different team and a different challenge,” Weems said. “Our players need to keep working and do the thing they need to do to help each other. I just hope we play well.”