By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal
Neither coach would say that they’re glad that this year’s meeting is not a division game.
But division game or not, Ken Byars and Brian Sutton both know how big Friday’s game is at Pontotoc’s Warrior Field between North Pontotoc and Pontotoc.
“As far as a division game counting towards making the playoffs,” said Sutton, the second-year North Pontotoc head coach, “I think this game is just as important. We don’t want to teach our kids that any game is not important just because it’s a non-division game.
“They’re a great team. We’ll be treating it like it is a division game because they are a great club. They’re not 4-0 for no reason. It’ll be good for us to play them because it will get us ready for the division.
“It allows us to see where we are before we play our division games.”
The Vikings, also 4-0 to start this season, have competed against the Warriors the past two seasons in MHSAA’s Division 1-4A. The Vikings outscored their rival 51-50 in last year’s contest, while it was the Warriors coming out on top in 2009, winning 21-13 at home. Both of those games were regular-season finales.
Before taking over the head coaching duties at Pontotoc High this summer, Byars was the offensive coordinator at Pontotoc the past three seasons. He said on the phone Tuesday that there is not a reduced stress level in playing the Vikings in a non-division game Friday.
With MHSAA’s most recent realignment of its divisions, the Vikings find themselves in Division 2-4A this season with Lafayette, the state’s top-ranked team and last year’s Class 4A state champion.
“It’s really all the same,” Byars said. “I don’t look at it in that sense. We take games one at a time. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the division or not.”
And it’s especially going to be stressful for Byars and Co. to prepare for a Vikings offense that has scored 47, 54, 55 and 61 points in its first four games of 2011.
“They throw the ball well,” Byars said. “They run the ball well with their running back (Mitchell Cunningham) and quarterback (Caleb Mills).
“They get the ball to their receivers coming across on speed sweep-type stuff.”
Meanwhile, Cunningham certainly proves to be a formidable ball carrier to tackle.
“As strong and fast as he is, one missed tackle and he’ll make you pay for it,” Byars said of the Vikings’ back, who won the 2011 Class 4A state powerlifting championship in the 220-pound weight division.
The Warriors’ offense also happens to be a productive one, even with offensive savant Charlie Dampeer no longer being the head coach. Dampeer left in the offseason to become Lincoln High (Ala.) head coach.
“They’re still running some multiple sets,” Sutton said of the 2011 Warriors. “They’re going to spread you out some and then come back and get in the I-formation a little bit. They’ve also been going out of the wing.
“Coach Byars is a great football coach. With them showing multiple sets, it makes you have to prepare and get ready for a lot of things.”
Sutton has been impressed with quarterback Rashad Dixon, running back Deonte Dilworth and wideout Shaquille Crayton, and the way the Warriors spread the ball around on offense.
As a junior, Dixon is in his first varsity season as the full-time starter at quarterback. A receiver and defensive back when he wasn’t behind center last season, Dixon split time at QB with Marcus Reed.
“We’re asking him to do different things,” Byars said of Dixon’s progression. “There’s no secret that he’s a tremendous athlete.
“He’s done some things with the ball that we haven’t asked him to do in the passing game before. We also have him more involved in the running game. In years past, we haven’t used a quarterback in the running game as we have now.”