Story by Rick Cleveland, photos by Keith Warren
Let’s take a trip through the thrills, chills and spills of State Championship Weekend at The Rock in Hattiesburg, where the best of Mississippi high school football was on display.
Championship dreams were both lived and dashed. Tears of both joy and despair were shed. Six state champions were crowned. Six gold ball trophies were awarded — and earned. Every player and coach received a medal — and memories for life.
We’ll go in the order the games were played and begin with the Jefferson Davis County Jaguars’ 42-10 Class 3A championship victory over Amory. It was Jaguars coach Lance Mancuso’s record ninth straight state championship and the Jags’ third in five years. Most of Mancuso’s previous titles were won at Bassfield, which was consolidated with nearby Prentiss, to form the new high school five years ago.
Three things haven’t changed with the new school. One, they still run the old, Wing-T offense. Two, they still run exceedingly fast. Three, they still have players named Booth. Demario Booth Jr. ran for 205 yards and three touchdowns to lead the way Friday.
“I’d like to take credit, but it’s really all about these kids,” Mancuso said, with grandchildren tugging at his pants legs. “I’ve been lucky enough to be the head coach of nine amazing football teams, and this group this year was no different. It’s just a collection of great kids and great players who deserve everything they’ve achieved.
“I don’t know why the good Lord has blessed me so.”
Class 1A, the division for Mississippi’s smallest football-playing schools, often produces the best championship games. It produced a doozy Friday afternoon when Bay Springs fired back from a 12-8 halftime deficit to defeat previously unbeaten Hollandale Simmons 32-12 with one of the smallest players on either team leading the way.
In truth, neither Bay Springs, not Simmons, looked like your typical Class 1A team. Their rosters were bigger, and so were their players. But Anthony Newell, who played quarterback and linebacker, showed there is still room in 1A football for a smaller guy with a huge heart. The mite-sized Newell played offense and defense and special teams for the Bulldogs, who won the first state championship in school history.
Newell completed four of six passes and led the ‘Dogs with 10 tackles. More importantly, he handed or pitched the ball 20 times to Anthony Ross, who rambled for 220 yards and two touchdowns and MVP honors.
Bay Springs has been in the playoffs countless times, been to the championship three times, but had never won one. “This championship is for all those teams that came close to doing this in the past,” said Bay Springs coach Dan Brady.
Brandon had won nine straight games. Madison Central had won seven straight. Something had to give in the Friday night battle of Class 6A titans. Finally, in the fourth quarter of a back-forth-struggle, Madison Central took advantage of a Brandon fumble and clinched a 24-17 victory for its first state championship in 22 years and only its second in school history. The game was an instant classic.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Madison Central coach Toby Collums said. “More than anything I’m proud for these kids for finding a way to win a state championship, especially against a group that’s as good and as well-coached as Brandon.”
Jaguars junior quarterback Jake Norris, who just three weeks ago was a reserve tight end, claimed MVP honors with a 178-yard performance that included a 79-yard touchdown pass and then the winning two-yard, TD run in the fourth quarter.
Norris became the Jags’ quarterback when normal starter Vic Sutton suffered a torn ACL two weeks ago. Asked if he would have believed he would be the state championship MVP two weeks ago, Norris responded, “Not in a million years. I had one touchdown all season at tight end. This is crazy … and awesome.
Senatobia’s Hunter Mabry caught three touchdown passes in the 4A championship game. And he lost. Columbia won its first state title in 39 years, prevailing 22-21 when Senatobia missed a short field goal attempt in the final seconds.
Columbia’s 6-foot-4-inch, 340-pound man child Jaheim Oatis, the state’s most coveted recruit (committed to Alabama), was on display, but his much smaller Wildcat teammate Kentrell Jackson made by far the game’s biggest play late in the third quarter with Senatobia leading the game 21-14 and seemingly driving for another touchdown.
Jackson, a 165-pound wide receiver and defensive back, had other ideas. He stripped the ball away from a Senatobia runner, broke three or four tackles, then raced 81 yards for a touchdown, zigging and zagging all the way down the field.
Southern Miss coach Will Hall, watching from the end zone, exclaimed, “Wow, that’s the greatest play I’ve ever seen! That kid’s last name must be Payton!”
No, it was Jackson. “It was just going through my mind I had to make a play,” Jackson would say afterward. “Finally, I made it happen.”
Yes, and then Columbia went for two with Oatis, who primarily plays defense, lining up at left tackle. Naturally, running back Omar Johnson followed Oatis’s push into the end zone for the winning two-point conversion.
NFL legend Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can attain excellence.”
The Scott Central Rebels found both this season. Scott Central set the MHSAA championships scoring record in a 72-24 victory over Leflore County to cap a perfect 15-0 season. The Rebels were the lone public school football team in Mississippi this season to finish the season undefeated.
Quez Goss, the team’s 15-year-old sophomore quarterback, might not have been perfect, but he was as close as it gets. He ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns. He threw for 350 yards and six touchdowns. That’s eight touchdowns total, but he was not perfect. Seven of his 24 passes fell incomplete.
Listen: Scott Central won its five playoff games by scores of 54-8, 54-25, 60-14, 60-14 again, and 72-24. That was after a regular season during which the Rebels averaged over 40 points per game.
Said Leflore County coach Eric House: “Scott Central was everything they were advertised to be. They are a great football team. They have the best receivers we’ve seen all year, and that quarterback is a special, special player.”
As the final seconds ticked down in Picayune’s 40-21 State 5A Championship victory over West Point, former Maroon Tide coach Dodd Lee found his successor Cody Stogner on the sidelines. They shared a long, obviously meaningful embrace.
“That man has had the biggest influence of anyone in my life outside my father,” Stogner would later say. “He coached me, he hired me as a coach and gave me a chance. He helped me replace him here as the coach. It’s just a very special moment.”
To win the title, Picayune had to beat the state’s most successful football program, 11-time state champ West Point and its ultra-successful coach Chris Chambless. Afterward, Stogner paid tribute to Chambless and West Point. He said his goal at Picayune has been to emulate in south Mississippi what Chambless has achieved in the Golden Triangle.
“… I don’t know how you wouldn’t want to mirror what those guys have been doing year in and year out. They show up every game and play it the right way. That’s why I’m so proud of my guys and what they have accomplished.”
As Dodd’s teams once did, Stogner’s Maroon Tide runs the somewhat old-fashioned Wing-T offense. They run it, run it, and then run it some more. They ran it for 393 of their 414 yards of total offense. Indeed, they threw the ball only three times all night.
Dante Dowdell ran it for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Davis ran it for 139 yards and two more scores. Darnell Smith chipped in 88 yards and another TD.
In many ways, Picayune did mirror West Point’s season-after-season formula for success. That is, they blocked, tackled and executed to perfection — or at least something mighty close.