Any way you look at it, the high school postseason comes down to the best against the best.
Friday night in Benton, inside Larry G. Davis Football Complex, two of the best teams in the 3A playoffs will line up to see which one will move on to the quarterfinals next week.
The 8-3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who gave the 9-2 Polk County Wildcats all they wanted in a 12-10 Irish loss in Week 7, will be rolling into town looking for revenge. Polk County will be looking to move past the second round for the first time in the tenure of Wildcats coach Derrick Davis.
“The familiarity is there. You get to this point and there are not a whole lot of teams in it that aren’t pretty good. The first game, they didn’t have their starting tailback and we were able defensively to make some right calls at the right time and got kind of lucky on occasion,” said Davis.
“On the flip side, we drove it down two or three times and didn’t get it in. This is a rematch a lot of people have been wanting to see. There will be no more rematches this year — one of us is going home.”
The Wildcats made the semifinals under the direction of Davis’ father Larry in 1979, losing to eventual state champion Alcoa. But 34 years have passed since that 8-5 season and the younger Davis is ready to see Polk County again have the spotlight shining on the Wildcats.
Polk has battled bumps and bruises all season and Friday will be no different. The Wildcats will be without starters Devin Weber and Carter Flowers against the Irish. Weber went down with a dislocated elbow in last week’s win over Sequatchie County, and Flowers suffered a dislocated knee during practice Monday.
“There aren’t going to be any excuses made. That’s why you have 60 kids on your team, the next guy is going to have step up and fill the gap. I hate it because they are seniors and have played their last high school game, but again, this is another opportunity for some of our other guys to step in,” said Davis.
“This time around we’re missing a couple but that’s part of it, that’s part of football. We’re going to get some guys to step in and keep on going.”
If the Wildcats pull off their second victory over the Fighting Irish, next week’s quarterfinal game will be played at home if Tyner wins over Upperman. If The Rams get stung by the Bees, Polk will make the two-hour trip on Interstate 40 West to Baxter.
“I know Notre Dame is ready for a rematch with us and we are ready for one with them, too,” said the Polk coach. “I know it’s been said they didn’t have some of their guys, but we’ve been there also. It may make a difference, it may not. That’s why we’re going to kick it off at 7 o’clock, play four quarters and see who goes on to the third round.
Four weeks ago when the two teams met, both were going on what was learned through film study and research. There will be few secrets this time, although each has added to their respective repertoire. The Irish and Wildcats will more than likely line it up and see who can bring it.
“We’ve got some things we have been working on all year, and haven’t used them much. I really think sometimes you outcoach yourself trying to do a whole lot of different stuff you haven’t practiced. We base our stuff on what we have been doing for 11 weeks. We might add a wrinkle or two,” said Davis. “Last time they came out with some things we haven’t seen all year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that again this time. It’s our job to line up and stop whatever they have for us.”
The familiarity between the Wildcats and Notre Dame could work in favor of both teams. But Davis is not counting on knowing everything the Irish may have up their sleeves.
“They have the ability to line up in the shotgun with no backs or go with three backs in the backfield with their running game. They have more diversity than we do as far as what they can do,” he said. “But this late in the year it comes down to two evenly matched teams and whoever can whip the guy across from them the longest.”
Davis said the basic key to a win is doing the right thing at the right time, and even though staying in Benton would be nice, a trip west of Cookeville will mean the Wildcats are still playing football.
“We are going to have to be real smart with what we are doing as far as execution and not hurt ourselves with penalties. Defensively we are going to have to make our reads and make sure we’re in the right alignments,” he said.
“There are many schools that sat out the last two weeks. We are glad to be one of those still in it. I don’t care if we have to travel or if we get to stay home. We’d just like to move on. These seniors deserve it but they know they are going to have to play well, as Notre Dame is going to have to play well if they are going to beat us.”
The fact Polk county has not advanced to the third round in three decades weighs on Davis. He is ready to take the Wildcats farther than they have been since before he strapped on a helmet as a player.
“It’s been 34 years. That bothers me,” he said. “We’ve been very consistent in my 14 years, but we just haven’t been able to get it done. It would be a big win as far as getting out of the second round. But the way I’m looking at it these seniors and this team deserve it. They are a great group and I would like to see them be able to say they’re in the quarterfinals and we’re not done yet.”
The Wildcats understand every Friday until the state championships could be the last one. They also know every Friday from now until then they have as good a chance as the other team if they do what they know to do and play up to capabilities.
“Once you move on to the next week you’ve got a chance. We’ve got a chance this week and it’s going to take an overall team effort. It’s going to take getting us in the right spot defensively then executing, [and it’s] the same offensively.
“We have to pick the right time to run certain plays,” said Davis. “It’s going to be one of those games where it’s going to be a handful of plays, just like the last time. There’s no reason why either team won’t be ready to play. There is no more looking down the road, it’s all about going out and executing what you are supposed to do.”