LAUREL, Miss. (WDAM) - Laurel High School last reached the Class 5A football state championship game in 2016, last won a state crown in 2014.
Senior safety Keno Shelby said that’s been far too long an absence for the Tornadoes.
“The expectations, (they’re) always high here,” Shelby said. “We’re always looking forward to the state championship. That’s our big goal, winning the state championship.
“We want to go back every year. We want to get there every year. I know we finished short a couple years, but we should be back up there.”
To do so, a group of returning veterans will have to meld a younger contingent into the mix.
We’ve got a good core group of kids coming back,” Laurel Coach Todd Breland said. “Obviously, we lost a lot of great players from last year, but I like our younger kids, too. We’ve got some guys who we think are going to be household names after this season that people don’t know about right now.
“It takes a unit, and it’s going to take those older guys to lead those younger guys and teach them how to get ready for a game, not only physically but mentally, but the preparation that goes into it. We’ll rely on that a lot.”
One of those teachers will be the 5-foot-10, 178-pound Shelby, who was selected as the Tornadoes’ “Player of the Pine Belt.”
“He’s a leader on this football team,” Breland said. “He’s an outstanding young man, on and off the field. High character and high work ethic. He’s a multi-sport player for Laurel High School, where excels on the football field and on the baseball field.
“He’s a quiet kid, but he leads by example. People are aware of his presence on the field.”
Shelby, a three starter at safety, said he knows what it’s like to the new kid in town.
“They threw me out there my sophomore year, and I just went out there and did my best,” Shelby said. “It was pretty good.
“Now, we have a young group, so us older guys are going to have to be counseling them, keep them in the game. We just have to throw them in the fire. They’ll be great.”
Breland, who has not had a losing season in his seven years at Laurel, saw the Tornadoes bounce back from a 1-3 start against a vicious non-region schedule in 2018 to finish 10-4, win Region 3-5A and reach the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.
The Tornadoes again will face a brutal opening schedule _ Poplarville, Hattiesburg, Wayne County and Petal _ after losing, among others, All-America left tackle Charles Cross, running backs Zias Perryman and Michael Terrell (combined 1,796 yards, 28 touchdowns) and five defensive starters.
But the Tornadoes also return six defensive and seven offensive starters, including junior quarterback Xavier Evans, who has been under center for 18 games the past two years, when healthy.
“To have your starting quarterback back, it gives you a lot of confidence,” Breland said. “He’s grown as a player, mentally, and physically, he’s one of the strongest kids on the team.”
The Tornadoes open the 2019 season at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23, when Poplarville High School visits Blair Stadium.