Olive Branch High School football coach Tyler Turner has a thing about Final Fours, and we're not speaking of the March Madness kind.
As head coach the previous two years at Liberty Tech, a magnet school in Jackson, Tenn., Turner took his teams to the Tennessee Final Four for two consecutive years, including last year's team that went 12-3 and lost in the TSSAA Division I, Class 3A finals to Alcoa, Tenn. 45-12.
While being in the Final Four may now be a familiar setting for Turner, there's newfound excitement about a Final Four appearance around the Olive Branch community he now coaches at, or North Half finals that Olive Branch is about to play in.
That's because one year removed from a season that had the tradition-proud Conquistadors suffering through an 0-11 campaign, Olive Branch will carry a 12-1 mark into the MHSAA 5A North Half finals next Friday night at top-ranked West Point with Friday's 40-21 second-round victory at Lake Cormorant.
"To do what these guys have done this year, with nobody having any expectations for these guys, and get 12 wins after an 0-11 year, these guys are incredible," Turner said. "This is the playoffs, everyone knew it was going to be a tight ball game and it was, and it was a fun game to be a part of."
The 19-point final outcome belies the closeness of the contest in the fourth quarter, however.
After taking a 27-7 halftime lead into the final quarter, Jalen Jordan moved the Gators within six points at 27-21 with 7:38 remaining, following touchdown runs of four and five yards.
"The kids could have laid down at halftime down 20 points," said Lake Cormorant coach Nick Nester. "We came back and got down just six in just a few minutes. Being down and having the ball with a few minutes left and the chance to win the football game, I couldn't be more proud of my guys."
Demarcus Ware II then sealed the deal for Olive Branch with a 16-yard run for a score, his fourth of the game, with 1:38 remaining to give the Quistors a 33-21 lead, followed by Jerrick Reed's interception return of 85 yards for another score shortly after that to put the icing on the playoff cake.
Ware gave Olive Branch the early cushion with touchdown runs of 74 yards on the Quistors' first play from scrimmage, followed by a six-yard score later in the first quarter and a one-yard blast for his third touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
Tadarius Hall answered for Lake Cormorant with 8:14 left in the half, however, culminating a Gator drive with a one-yard run to get the home team within 20-7 Olive Branch.
Jaylon Gale got the points back for Olive Branch, scoring from 16 yards on a pass play from quarterback Cole Catledge with 5:24 before halftime for a 27-7 lead.
The Olive Branch victory puts the Conquistadors on a course back to West Point on Friday, Nov. 24, when they play the Green Wave for the right to play in the 5A state championship contest at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford on Saturday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m.
West Point won its 26th game in a row with their 32-13 second-round playoff win Friday against Grenada.
The task against the defending state champions will be a challenging one for Olive Branch, meeting a team that gave the Quistors its only loss of the season last year, a 51-7 defeat on Oct. 13.
It's a challenge the Quistors are looking forward, however, as a group excited about getting to practice on Thanksgiving to get ready for the Friday rematch.
"To be the best, you have to beat the best," Turner said.
Lake Cormorant finishes the season with a 6-7 record in a year that saw the Gators go through the adversity of losing teammate Jaquarius Harper in an accidental shooting incident in early October, followed by defeating Lafayette 35-27 in the last week of the season to even make the playoffs.
"We've been in playoff mode the last four weeks," Nester said. "We've had our backs against the wall and they stepped up."
Elsewhere in DeSoto County playoff football Friday night,
STARKVILLE 35, HORN LAKE 7. One week removed from a struggling offense that failed to score a touchdown, hit only two field goals and miss on three others in a 6-0 victory over Southaven, the Starkville Yellow Jackets amassed more than 500 yards total offense and put together a strong second half in a 35-7 MHSAA 6A victory over the Horn Lake Eagles, making a playoff appearance for the first time in many years.
Playing on their home field, the Jackets took an early 7-0 lead but Tyler Grim tied it for Horn Lake with a score in third quarter.
But Starkville scored the next 28 points to finish off the Horn Lake postseason hopes and the Eagles ended the year with a 9-3 record.
Starkville quarterback Malik Brown threw for 220 yards and 3 touchdowns against a Horn Lake defense that had allowed only 12.4 points a game this fall entering the contest.
Starkville's defense also picked off three passes in the victory, supporting its own strong defense that itself allowed only 10.5 points a game coming into the game.
Starkville, now 12-2 for the season, hosts Madison Central in the 6A North Half finals this coming Friday. Madison Central scored on a last-second touchdown to edge Warren Central 28-26.
PREP BASKETBALL ROUNDUP: Center Hill's Brien Kimmons continued his strong offensive play for the Center Hill Mustangs Friday, netting 25 points in an 86-51 triumph over Horn Lake. Kaeden Laws added 15 and Justin Kearney 11 as the Mustangs moved to 5-0 for the young season.
Independence held off Hernando 66-55, despite 17 points from Malik Wallace for the Tigers, and in the nightcap of a daytime doubleheader, Water Valley outscored Lewisburg 59-47.
On the girls side, Rachel Greer's 20 points paced Hernando to a 65-49 victory over Independence and in the opener of the daytime double-dip, Lewisburg easily handled Water Valley 55-14.
PREP SOCCER ROUNDUP: Lots of goals were scored by Hernando Tigers and Lady Tigers on Friday, as the boys defeated Ripley 6-1 and the girls had an easier time in an 11-1 victory.
Bob Bakken is Sports Editor and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.