HATTIESBURG – Back in the 20th century, circa 1981, back when Chuck Noll was coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers and his four-time Super Bowl champions were getting long in the tooth, they decided to go all out for one last championship ring.
“One for the thumb,” was the rallying cry. Alas, those 20th century Steelers never got that fifth ring. Now then, let’s come back to the present and Saturday night at The Rock at Southern Miss, where the West Point Green Wave was attempting to win a 10th state championship in the history of one of Mississippi’s most successful, most proud programs.
“One for the second thumb,” they could have called it.
West Point got it, which will surprise nobody who follows Mississippi prep football closely. Coach Chris Chambless’s Green Wave won their third straight Class 5A championship, defeating West Jones 27-12, the largest margin of victory of the six state championship games this weekend. Making it all the more impressive, an estimated 8,000 fans from nearby West Jones jammed into the east side of the stadium making for an announced crowd of 10,367, largest of the weekend. For West Point, this was much like a road game.
The Green Wave has now won state championships in 1982, 1987, 1988, 1989, 2005, 2009, 2010, and these past three years in Starkville, Oxford and Hattiesburg. Chambless has won five in his 12 years at West Point.
Want more? The Green Wave has won 43 of its last 45 games. They haven’t lost a district game or a playoff game in three seasons. They haven’t lost to a Class 5A team in three seasons.
Perhaps more impressive? West Point graduated 18 starters – all 11 on defense – off last year’s team that won all 15 games by an average margin of 35 points.
Whose loses 18 starters and comes back to win a third straight championship?
West Point, that’s who.
“I guess you can just say we reloaded,” Chambless said.
You can also say West Point had a whole bunch of really good players who weren’t starting last year, but played a lot because the Green Wave won by such big margins. Those back-ups were just awaiting their chance. What’s the secret? The Green Wave has plenty of speed and plays fundamentally as sound as you’ll see in high school football. Also, West Point linemen look as if they live on the squat rack. They are thick in their legs and rears. They block their tails off. That’s how running back Brandon Harris, selected the game’s MVP, ran for 120 yards and a touchdown through West Jones’ massive defensive line.
West Point makes special teams really special, too. With West Point leading 7-3 late in the first quarter, Green Wave defensive back Ryan Melton broke clear through the line and blocked a punt, then scooped the ball and raced 25 yards for the touchdown.
“That was a game changer,” Chambless said. “That was just a huge play in the game.”
Melton said West Point coaches saw something on the West Jones game film early last week that made them believe they could block a punt. “It happened just like we thought it would,” Melton said.
Melton, who just as easily could have been the MVP, also provided the game’s biggest defensive play. West Point was leading 20-12 – still a one-score game – early in the fourth quarter. West Jones was at the West Point 15 with a chance to pull closer or even tie the game. That’s when Melton stepped front of a West Jones receiver, intercepted the pass at the 5-yard line and returned it 11 yards to the 16. If the blocked punt was the game’s biggest play, the interception was the second biggest.
“The receiver ran a double move and I didn’t bite,” Melton said. “The quarterback threw it high and I went up and got it at the highest point, which is the way they teach us. That pick was huge.”
During the victory celebration, Chambless, the coach, shared a moment with Jake Chambless, his son, the team’s quarterback and former 6-year-old ball boy. How good is that? You win your fifth state championship with your son as your quarterback.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” the quarterback said. “It’s tough being the coach’s son sometimes. But I don’t think there’s any doubt my dad is the best coach in this state. Last year, two days after the state championship, we had a team meeting and said we gotta come back and get another one. I don’t think anybody thought we could – at least not anybody outside West Point.”
But in West Point, they believe. And, in West Point, they have a track record that gives them every reason to believe.
Last year, the good football-loving people of West Point, along with Nautilus Publishing, put together a lovely, informative coffee table book telling the rich history of West Point football. It was something you might expect to see at an SEC school.
And, wouldn’t you know it? Already, they need to add another chapter.