Nanih Waiya coach James Courtney holds the state championship trophy high, as his Warriors celebrated around him after a 21-18 victory over Hollandale Simmons.

HATTIESBURG – Nanih Waiya, in Choctaw language means “leaning hill.”

Rick Cleveland

And that may be, but there was no leaning where the Nanih Waiya Warriors were concerned here Friday night in the State Class 1A Football Championship. The Warriors stood tall, indeed, following a scintillating 21-18 victory over three-time defending champion Hollandale Simmons Blue Devils.

Little Austin Sanders, a 155-pound sophomore cornerback, sealed the deal for the Warriors with a pass interception with just over two minutes to play at the Nanih Waiya 29-yard line.

“I knew they were coming my way,” Sanders said, his braces gleaming in the stadium lights. “The receiver ran a short out pattern. I stayed with him, turned around and there the ball was. All I had to do is hang on to it.”

He did, and a couple of minutes later commenced one of the wildest victory celebrations you can imagine. In the middle of it, Nanih Waiya coach James Courtney tried to explain how much the victory meant.

“When you come to the state championship game, you don’t want to play a pansy,” Courtney said. “When you get this far, you want to play a giant. And that’s what we did tonight. We beat the giant.”

In Class 1A football, Simmons is certainly that. The Blue Devils had won 54 consecutive games – most in the nation – dating back to Nov. 21, 2014. That was 1,470 days ago if you are keeping score.

Simmons runner Demarrius Turner, 18, scoots for yardage as Nanih Waiya’s Deon Hickman closes in for the tackle.

“Can you imagine that,” Courtney shouted above the din. “Their players have never lost. They don’t even know what it is to lose.”

And that explains why many of the Hollandale players were inconsolable afterwards. Nearly all wept.

Said coach Timothy James Johnson, between hugging player after player, “I can’t say enough about this amazing group of guys I coach. I take full blame for what happened today. I called a bad game.”

Not true. Johnson called good plays. His guys out-gained Nanih Waiya 401-332. Nanih Waiya just made more plays this day.

And, oh, what a difference a year makes.

Last year, in the state championship game played at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Nanih Waiya led Hollandale Simmons 20-6 with 11 minutes to go before the Blue Devils rallied to win it 22-20.

Roles were reversed then. Simmons players celebrated wildly. Nanih Waiya players wept while consoling one another. With apologies to the SEC, in Class 1A football, it really does just mean more. Entire communities rally around the team. Players go both ways – and play on special teams, too.

“We’ve talked about that game just about every day since what happened last year,” Courtney said. “We talked about it before and after every 100-yard sprint we ran in the heat this summer. We were determined to finish the deal this year.”

About those 100-yard wind sprints…

“We must have run a million of them,” said Coley Taylor, a wide receiver/defensive back, who was all over the field Friday night. “We thought we let last year’s game get away from us. We got tired. We ran out of gas. We weren’t going to let that happen this year. That’s why we ran all those sprints. If we lost this year, it wasn’t going to be because they were in better shape than we were. We came here to finish and we did finish.”

This time, it was Hollandale that led 18-14 at halftime. Shia Moore and Coley Taylor provided the only points of the second half. Moore, a halfback, took a pitch from quarterback Donovan Turner and lofted a 34-yard touchdown pass to Taylor.

It was appropriate those three players touched the ball on the winning touchdown. Turner, the game’s MVP ran for 144 yards and a touchdown and threw for 50 more. Moore ran for 106 yards and a touchdown and threw for the 34 yards. Taylor led Nanih Waiya receivers with three catches for 79 yards and the touchdown.

“We remembered the pain from last year” Turner, the quarterback, said. “We weren’t going to let that happen again.”

Nanih Waiya’s Warriors waited a year for for a chance at redemption. They made their celebration count.

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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.