Starkville coach Chris Jones won a state title at Kemper County last year.

 

If you appreciate really good high school football – and I do – Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at Ole Miss will be the place to be this Friday and Saturday.

These eyes have been watching Mississippi high school football for forever, and I cannot remember ever seeing such a compelling slate of six championship games.

Start with this: The combined records of the 12 participating teams is 161-11. That’s an average of 13.4 victories per team. That’s an average of less than one loss.

That’s impressive.

Rick Cleveland

The weekend kicks off with the Class 1A championship matching 14-0 Hollandale-Simmons against 15-0 Nanih Waiya at 11 a.m. Friday. It ends with the 5A match Saturday night at 7, pitting 14-0 West Point against 14-0 Hattiesburg. And there’s four good matchups in between, including Friday night’s Class 6A clash between 13-2 Starkville and 15-0 Pearl.

Let’s take a look at the games in the order they will be played.

• Simmons vs. Nanih Waiya, Class 1A (11 a.m. Friday) – Says Nanih Waiya head coach Ryan Keeton, with a straight face: “We’re playing a team that hasn’t lost since Ronald Reagan was president.”

Not exactly. But Simmons hasn’t lost since Nov. 21, 2014, and has won 39 straight since. Few have been close. The Blue Devils shut out 11 of 14 foes this season, while averaging 46 points per game themselves.

Nanih Waiya, which won 15 straight by an average of 38 points per game, is no slouch. Former Ole Miss football coach Steve Sloan once said that Nanih Waiya product Freddie Joe Nunn was “as fast as the west Texas wind” and would put Nanih Waiya on the map. Perhaps, but the current Warriors have more than one superstar. Running backs Taemaus Glass and Chris Smith both rushed for more than 1,500 yards this season.

• Winona vs. Taylorsville, Class 2A (3 p.m. Friday) – Here, we have a newcomer vs. a perennial powerhouse. Winona, 11-3, will be playing in its first state championship football game ever. Taylorsville, 14-1, has won five state championships and finished as the runner-up four times.

Sound like a mismatch? Think again. After a slow start, Winona has won seven straight and defeated perennial powers Scott Central and defending state champ Calhoun City the last two weekends.

Taylorsville is home to Major League baseball standout Billy Hamilton, one of the most gifted multi-sport athletes in Magnolia State history. Now, Taylorsville is home to Ty Keyes, a freshman quarterback, who just turned 15, and threw for five touchdowns in the Tartars’ South State championship victory over Collins. Keyes has thrown for 42 touchdowns in his freshman season and Winona can just be thankful he doesn’t have the speedy Hamilton as a receiver.

• Starkville vs. Pearl, Class 6A (7 p.m. Friday) – Last year, Chris Jones coached Kemper County to a thrilling 12-8 Class 3A state championship victory over Charleston. Now, he coaches at North State champion Starkville, which enters the championship game at 13-2. Asked to describe the difference between coaching 3A and 6A football, Jones, smiled and said, “More players, more coaches. You just deal with more people. Football’s the same. We do the same stuff.”

At Kemper, Jones had 55 players. At Starkville, he has 63 ninth graders. At Kemper, he welcomed all comers. At Starkville he actually had to cut down down from 125 because he just didn’t have enough uniforms. At Kemper, he had two full-time assistant coaches. At Starkville, he has 12.

Jones watched Pearl play Clinton and Cam Akers in last year’s state championship, so he knows what a task his team faces against the 15-0 Pirates.

I wrote after the 2016 championship game that Pearl was the favorite to win it all in 2017. Nothing has happened to change that.

Kenny Gainwell

Yazoo County vs. Jefferson Davis County, Class 3A (11 a.m. Saturday) – There are any number of reasons to watch this one, not the least being a chance to watch Yazoo quarterback Kenny Gainwell, who does a little bit of everything. Listen to Germantown coach Tim Schramek, whose Class 5A team was defeated by Yazoo County 30-20 in September: “Gainwell is as close to Cam Akers as we have faced. He’s special. He can run, he can throw, he’s strong and he’s faster than anybody who’s trying to catch him and anyone who tries to run away from him.”

Gainwell, who led Yazoo to a 14-0 season, will face a 14-1 Jeff Davis team that has a roster filled with speed. This might be the best matchup of all. Jeff Davis lost only to Class 4A South Champion East Central, and there’s a story there.

Listen to Lance Mancuso, the Jefferson Davis coach who won four straight state championships at Bassfield, which has now combined with Prentiss to form Jefferson Davis County High School. “I’m real proud of Seth Smith (the East Central head coach). You probably don’t remember this but I coached him a long time ago at Pearl River Central. Seth called me up last summer and wanted to play us in football. Now I know why.”

But there’s another side to that story …

• Noxubee County vs. East Central, Class 4A (3 p.m. Saturday) – Says Seth Davis, the East Central coach: “I didn’t call Coach Mancuso, he called me. I just want to get that straight. He’s so competitive he’ll play anybody.”

Davis has built East Central (located in Hurley, near Moss Point) into a powerhouse few teams will want to play. This is his fifth year at the school. His first four teams finished 1-10, 5-7, 7-5 and 8-5. Notice a trend? Well, this year’s East Central team is 13-0 and will face 10-4 and tradition-rich Noxubee for the championship.

Noxubee has won state titles four times over the past eight years. East Central has never even played for a state championship. And there’s this: Noxubee really will play anybody. Since starting 2-4 against much larger schools, Noxubee has won eight straight against like schools.

• West Point vs. Hattiesburg, Class 5A (7 p.m. Saturday) – These two teams have 28 victories and zero losses between them. They also have eight state championship among them. Yes and all eight have been won by West Point. That’s right, for all its football and athletic tradition, Hattiesburg has not won a state title in football. Coach Tony Vance, with a roster that includes 28 seniors, hopes to change that.

The Hattiesburg Tigers will not lack for support. Friday night, after the Tigers defeated arch-rival Laurel for the South State title, Hattiesburg school officials immediately sold 5,300 tickets for the state championship game.

A first championship will not come easily for the Tigers. West Point has won three straight playoff games by scores of 56-0, 32-13 and 39-6. In fact, one of the closest games West Point played this season was against 6A finalist Starkville, which fell 28-3 back in September.

Said West Point coach Chris Chambless, “It’s no secret. We’ve got great players.”

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Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.