Water Valley’s Bud Tolbert, enroute to one of his four touchdowns in the Blue Devils 34-28 state championship victory over Seminary.

HATTIESBURG — One of the joys of watching small-town high school football is trying to pick out the key players when you have no working knowledge of the teams.

That wasn’t a difficult task when the Water Valley Blue Devils and Seminary Bulldogs took the field Friday morning for the State Class 3A Championship game at The Rock in Hattiesburg.

Rick Cleveland

Seminary’s Nathan Pickering, No. 22, seemed about to bust out of his jersey and britches, stretching the fabric as taut as could be. The program listed him at 6 feet, 4 inches and 290 pounds. He was all of that, proportioned just the way you want a nose guard’s body. He was a head taller and several inches thicker than nearly all his teammates. He was massive.

Meanwhile, for Water Valley, you couldn’t help but notice long, tall Bud Tolbert, wearing No. 5. The program listed him at 6 feet, 3 inches. He appeared taller with a wingspan that had his hands dangling just above his knees when he was standing still. He was listed at 190 pounds, surely with no more than a few ounces of fat. He’s what you want your wide receivers to look like, and Tolbert not only lined up at wide receiver on offense, but cornerback on defense. He also returned punts.

You knew, before the game ever started, these two – Tolbert and Pickering – would have an impact. Turns out, Tolbert had more. He caught four passes, all for touchdowns, for 100 yards. He was selected the game’s MVP, which was a no-brainer, in Water Valley’s 34-28 victory. He won the game is what he did.

“Nobody can cover Bud one on one,” said quarterback Jacob Truss, who threw all four of Tolbert’s touchdowns and caught one on a trick play himself. “When they just put just one man on Bud, we just went to him.

Tolbert got the Blue Devils on the board first with a 24-yard touchdown pass seven minutes into the game.

With Water Valley leading 14-6 just before halftime, the Blue Devils faced third down and five yards to go at the Seminary 35. Tolbert headed straight down the field against single coverage. Truss heaved a pass that was a three yards behind Tolbert, but the big kid adjusted to the ball and brought it down to give the Devils a 21-6 halftime lead.

Water Valley made it 28-6 early in the third when Tolbert gathered in another 35-yard touchdown. But give Seminary credit for this: The Bulldogs did not quit, even when Tolbert’s fourth touchdown, on a six-yard pass, gave the Blue Devils a 34-12 lead late in the third quarter.

Pickering made sure of that, clogging the running lanes and making five solo tackles, two for losses despite often being double-teamed.

When Seminary’s Joseph Owens scored on a 15-yard run with 95 seconds left, 34-12 had become 34-28. The Bulldogs called for an onsides kick, but Keldric McIntosh fell on it for Water Valley sealing the victory.

“They deserved to win it today,” Seminary coach Brian Rials. “They did a good job, but we’re not losers. Our guys fought to the end. We never gave up.”

Rials said the Bulldogs knew what they were facing in Bud Tolbert. “He’s made big plays for them all year,” Rials said. “They did a good job adjusting to whatever we did defensively. If we moved a safety over to double him up, they ran the ball successfully. If we played him man-to-man, they threw it to him. That’s just good football.”

“No,” Tolbert answered, grinning, “I’ve never caught four touchdowns in a game before. I’ve gotten three, but never four.”

Tolbert will play for the North in next week’s Bernard Blackwell All-Star Game. Then, he will trade in the spikes for sneakers and play basketball.

“He can probably play college basketball if he wants to,” Water Valley coach Brad Embry said. “He’s that talented.”

Tolbert, who runs a 4.6 40-yard dash, reportedly has a football offer to Louisiana-Monroe and several smaller schools. He says he wants to play football.

Seminary’ Nathan Pickering, 22) puts the stops to Water Valley running back Taylor Rucker, 17.

Seminary’s Pickering has committed to play at Mississippi State. Bulldog fans will like how he fills out a maroon and white uniform.

Neither Pickering nor Tolbert will soon forget the day they took the field for their hometowns before nearly 7,000 fans in the state championship game. No doubt, Tolbert will have the fonder memories, along with the MVP plaque for his wall.

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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 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.