CHATSWORTH -- North Murray High School now has double-digit wins this season, but better yet advances to the Sweet 16 of the Class 3A playoffs as it began its postseason march on Friday night in front of an enthusiastic home crowd and with a 28-14 win over Monroe Area.
The Mountaineers, now 10-1 on the season, will be at home again Friday against Jackson at 7:30 p.m.
Jackson defeated Liberty County on Friday night in the first round of the playoffs, 28-11.
Several defensive stands on fourth downs were paramount in North Murray's victory, while senior playmaker Ladd McConkey once again excelled on offense, defense and special teams. McConkey threw for a touchdown and ran for another, while he also intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown for his team's first score. He also pinned the Purple Hurricanes deep inside their own territory with his punts on several occasions.
This is McConkey's first season punting, but he knew coming into the year he'd be deployed as a weapon in several ways by his coaches, so he prepared for a busy year.
"That's what summer conditioning is for," he said.
Trailing 21-14 with roughly 5:30 to play, the Hurricanes opted to go for it on fourth and short from their own 36, but Aaron McCurdy and Hayden Hulett blew the play up in the backfield to reclaim possession for the Mountaineers. North Murray then had a chance to make it a two-score game, but Owen Hannah failed to convert a 30-yard field goal -- only for the home side to benefit from a roughing the kicker penalty.
That personal foul not only granted a new set of downs, but also allowed the Mountaineers to burn more time off the clock. Eventually, D'Ante Tidwell scored from 3 yards out on an option pitch from McConkey with 110 seconds left to put the Mountaineers up 14.
"(Monroe Area) is big up front and well coached, but we didn't fold," said North Murray coach Preston Poag. "We fought and fought."
"This team has a lot of heart," Poag added. "We're a veteran team, we've been very focused in practice and we just wanted it more."
A fumble killed a promising North Murray drive to open the game, but McConkey erased that error with his 34-yard interception return with 7:27 remaining in the opening quarter.
"We watched film, so we knew it was coming, and I read it," McConkey said. "It's great when you see that open field, because all you have to do is run straight."
Early in the second quarter, North Murray, which finished 8-0 in Region 6-3A and won the school's first region title in the history of the football program, doubled the margin with 11:10 remaining in the half. McConkey's keeper moved the ball from the 11 to the 1, and then his quarterback sneak on the next play found the end zone.
On the ensuing possession, Monroe Area faced a second and short from the North Murray 41, but the Mountaineers refused to surrender even a yard on the next three plays, forcing the turnover on downs. However, a fumble by McConkey gave them the ball back at North Murray's 18, but, once again, the home team's defense forced a turnover on downs.
"We were able to get a lot of penetration with our defense," Poag said. "We confused them some, and we hit their QB a bunch."
Selatian Straughter Jr. didn't complete his first pass until there were only three minutes left in the half, but that seemed to burst the dam, as he then hit Brandon Moody for 40 yards, and his 2-yard touchdown pass to Dabarius Partee with 55 seconds remaining before the break provided hope for the visitors. Midway through the third, those two connected for their second score, a 31-yarder, tying the game at 14.
The Mountaineers reclaimed the lead prior to the start of the fourth stanza, however. McConkey converted a fourth down at the Monroe Area 25 with a 17-yard completion to Hulett, and then he completed a 7-yard touchdown pass to Hulett despite the receiver having tripped and fallen, leading to him catching the pass flat on his back.
"They showed blitz a lot, and they were bringing too many guys," McConkey said. "I knew I had to get it out of my hands quick and let the receivers make plays."
The Hurricanes, who came in as the No. 4 seed from Region 8-3A and sporting a 7-3 record on the season, ended their campaign Friday night in Chatsworth.
"We've got something special going," Poag told his team after the game. "I love coaching you guys."