Mars Hill football Walker White

Mars Hill's Walker White catches a pass and runs through the tackle of Decatur Heritage's Tyler Founds to score in last week's Class 1A state quarterfinal game. Mars Hill won 42-21 and will visit Pickens County tonight. [MATT MCKEAN/TIMESDAILY]

FLORENCE — After the Pickens County football team beat Spring Garden in last Friday’s Class 1A quarterfinal round, the Tornadoes started a chant.

“Unfinished business. Mars Hill. Unfinished business. Mars Hill.”

The Tornadoes have not forgotten which team knocked them out 20-12 in last year’s semifinals. They have a shot at redemption when Mars Hill visits for this year’s Class 1A semifinal game at 7 p.m. Friday at Pickens County.

When Mars Hill coach Darrell Higgins heard about the chant, it reinforced to him the emotion Pickens County is likely to play with in an already massive game for both teams.

“They’ve circled this all year long, so we know it’ll be a great challenge,” Higgins said.

Pickens County, as you’d expect of a state semifinalist, is not just motivated but good.

The Tornadoes are coached by Michael Williams, a former University of Alabama and NFL player who is in his second year in charge of the team and has already led the Tornadoes to 20 wins.

They also haven’t lost to a Class 1A team this year. Their lone losses are 22-21 to 3A Aliceville and 39-0 to Gordo, which made the 3A quarterfinals.

They went 7-0 in their region, including an 18-15 win over South Lamar, the teams’ only common opponent.

Mars Hill beat South Lamar 59-34 two weeks ago, but Higgins didn’t hesitate when asked if this Pickens County game makes him more nervous than the last three playoff games have.

“Absolutely,” he said. “You can see when their guys really want to play, they can almost dominate anybody.”

The most obvious example is Jah-Marien Latham, a defensive end and offensive tackle who is a rare Class 1A player committed to Alabama.

Higgins showed his team film of Latham running 30 yards downfield to make a block.

In an interview Monday night, Higgins gushed about the way Latham practically threw around opposing players in his way, adding that Latham is even better than he was last year and is as good as any future SEC player Higgins has coached against at the high school level.

“Size, power, athleticism, effort,” Higgins said. “I could show you a few plays here that you’d be blown away by.”

Accustomed to dominating up front, Mars Hill’s linemen will have their biggest challenge of the season.

“They’ve got the skill guys of a South Lamar but the big guys South Lamar didn’t have,” Higgins said of Pickens County. “They’ll be the first team that matches up with us size-wise all year.”

Quarterback Javion Belle and running back JaCorian Cosby are among the other Tornadoes to watch.

This game also requires Mars Hill’s longest road trip of the season, more than two hours south to Reform. (The team will visit Tuscaloosa on the way.)

Higgins said Mars Hill struggled early in its road playoff game at South Lamar last year and he’s hoping to avoid a similarly slow start.

The bottom line — a year after Mars Hill reached a new milestone with each playoff win, the Panthers must show they want a trip to Auburn for the Class 1A state championship game as badly as Pickens County does.

Higgins said the Panthers seem willing to do what it takes to play well each week.

“I think they do,” he said. “I wondered that all year long and I think we went out and played that South Lamar game. It was no doubt about it.”

Contact Craig at Craig.Thomas@TimesDaily.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TD_CraigThomas

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