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Region Champions …
Wildcats roll to top of Region 7-4A and top playoff seeding with big win over Purvis
By RUSSELL TURNER
There are a lot of words to describe how the Greene County Wildcats may have been feeling after a hard-fought, emotional win over Poplarville two weeks ago. Clearly, ‘satisfied’ or ‘content’ would not have been among them.
There was no letdown for the Wildcats as they hosted Purvis last Friday in the final regular season game for both teams. GCHS came out fired up and focused and rolled to a 41-13 win over the Tornados to complete an undefeated run through its region slate and claim the first region title for the school since 2007.
It was a big deal for Head Coach Mike King and his team. Not only did they earn the title of Region 7-4A Champions, they also secured the region’s No. 1 seed and the right to play hosts this week as the MHSAA state playoffs get underway.
“Several really good football teams have come through here over the years that were not able to win a region title,” King said. “It is a hard thing to do and I am very proud of this team for getting it done.”
“It is a big accomplishment, but I think our guys want more. Winning the region gives us the benefit of being able to play our first round playoff game here at home and that is a big deal. Once again, I am very proud of these players and this coaching staff.”
Along with the potential carryover from the win at Poplarville, the Cats had the added potential distraction of senior recognition ceremonies prior to kickoff. None of that seemed to take King’s players eyes off the prize as they scored on their opening possession and rolled to the lopsided win.
After receiving the opening kickoff GCHS drove 65 yards to take a 7-0 lead with 6:21 left in the first quarter. Senior quarterback Drake Henderson capped the 13-play drive with a 1-yard run and senior Jacob Mitchell added the PAT.
A turnover by the Tornados on their first offensive play gave the ball immediately back to the Wildcats. The recovered fumble by senior Josh Bolton at the Purvis 46 led to a 3-yard TD run by Henderson and with Mitchell’s PAT, the Wildcats extended their lead to 14-0 with 1:54 left in the quarter.
Purvis didn’t fold and put together a nice scoring drive to close the gap. Quarterback Walker Flatt hit Jesse Johnson for a 3-yard TD pass and to make it a 14-7 game with 7:31 remaining in the first half.
But, Purvis couldn’t hold the momentum as the Cats answered with a 64-yard scoring drive. A quarterback sneak to convert a short-yardage situation and move the chains, turned into Henderson’s third TD of the game as the senior broke past the line of scrimmage and followed a host of linemen 22 yards to the endzone. Mitchell nailed the PAT and pushed the lead to 21-7 with 3:52 on the second quarter clock.
A nice defensive stand gave GCHS a chance to extend the lead before halftime. King’s offense didn’t squander the opportunity and were back in the endzone in just four plays. Freshman K.J. Miller finished things off with a nice 20-yard TD and Mitchell booted the PAT to give the Cats a 28-7 lead heading into the locker room.
“I thought we came out and played well early,” King said. “And, I really like the way we responded after they scored.”
“We knew they would get the ball first to start the second half, so it was good to close out the first half with a lot of momentum.”
Purvis converted back-to-back fourth downs to start the third quarter and get into Wildcat territory. But the third time was not the charm as the Wildcat defense smothered the play and reclaimed possession at their own 40. Ten plays later, Miller capped the drive with a 3-yard TD. A problem with the snap spoiled the extra-point attempt, but GCHS had extended the lead to 34-7 with 3:07 left in the third quarter.
The Cats pushed the lead to 41-7 after an interception by senior linebacker Jaheim Cooper. Unfortunately, the points came at a high cost for the Wildcats as Cooper was injured after the interception and is likely out for the remainder of the season. Penalties on the play also pushed GCHS backed to its own 17, but the Cats marched 83 yards in 10 plays for the TD. A screen pass from Henderson to sophomore Cameron Dunnam netted 44 yards down to the Purvis 1-foot line and Henderson took it in from there.
The big lead gave the Wildcats a chance to get some quality playing for their younger players in the final quarter. Purvis was able to close the gap to 41-13 with 3:22 left to play, but the young Wildcat defenders came up with a nice goal-line stand late in final moments to secure to the 28-point win.
The loss of Cooper is a tough blow for the Cats, who held Purvis to just 186 yards on the night, despite the two late drives. Cooper had a big hand in that, and left the game with a team-high six tackles, which puts him at second overall on the team for the season.
“Jaheim getting injured is a tough blow and it put a bit of a damper on this win,” King said. “He has played so well for us all season, and particularly over the past few games, so we will definitely miss him on the field.”
Senior Ladon Woullard and sophomore Kye Seymour finished just behind Cooper with five tackles apiece. Seniors Malachi Graham and Hunter McLeod each had three tackles, while 14 other Wildcats had at least two each in the win.
Offensively, the Wilcats totaled 389 yards on the night. Henderson led the way with 88 yards and four touchdowns on 11 carries. He also threw for 140 yards on 12-of-15 passing.
Miller rushed for 70 yards and two TDs on eight carries and added 14 yards on two receptions. Senior Anthony Calhoun had 70 yards on 14 carries and sophomore Dallarus Cooper added 12 yards on four carries.
Roberts was the team’s leading receiver with 59 yards on five catches, while Dunnam had three catches for 57 yards. Jacob Mitchell had his first catch of the season for nine yards and was 5-for-5 on PAT kicks.
Vancleave visits for 1st Round Playoff matchup
With the win, the Wildcats improved to 7-3 overall and 6-0 on the year. As the No. 1 seed from Region 7-4A GCHS will play host to the No. 4 seed out of Region 8. Vancleave claimed that distinction with a 37-21 win over Bay High last week to improve to 2-2 in region play and 5-5 overall.
It will be a rematch of a scrimmage the two teams played to start the season. That win by the Wildcats didn’t count in the Cat’s overall record and King says it doesn’t hold any bearing on this week’s matchup.
“We played them in a scrimmage to start the season, but what we did 10 weeks ago has zero to do with this game,” King said. “They have improved a lot since that first game and we are a different team as well.”
“They run multiple offensive sets, which can be a problem if you aren’t prepared. They have tough, gritty kids along the line of scrimmage and play hard as a team. I know they will come in here ready to play.”
The Wildcats outscored Vancleave by 28 in two quarters of play in that opening scrimmage. The next week Vancleave dropped a 49-7 loss to Gautier at home. They won three of their next four non-region games, beating West Harrison (49-35), Long Beach (33-20) and South Jones (35-10), with the loss coming to East Central by a 56-14 margin in the third week of the season.
The Bulldogs lost to West Marion (33-7) in their final non-region game, but jumped out to a 1-0 start in Region 8 with a 29-22 win over Moss Point on Oct. 11. Losses to Pass Christian (34-28) and St. Stanislaus (49-7) forced them into a must-win situation last week when Bay High visited with a playoff berth on the line.
Vancleave is led offensively by junior quarterback Christian Kell (#5, 5-10, 170). Kell has completed 75-of-153 passes for 1,125 yards. He has thrown for 12 touchdowns, but has been intercepted five times as well. He has also rushed for 610 yards and 10 TDs this season.
Sophomore Dayan Bilbo (#21) is the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 765 yards and six touchdowns. He has three 100-yard games to his credit and is averaging over 6.5 yards per carry. Senior Chase Aubry (#7, 5-8) plays a big role in their running game as well and has 464 yards and five touchdowns to his credit this year.
The Bulldogs get a lot of folks involved in the passing game and have five receivers with double-figure catches on the year. Junior Devon Hand (#5, 5-9, 165) is the receiver with the most yards from scrimmage, tallying 325 yards and two touchdowns on 14 catches. J-wes Small (#8, 6-0, 175, Sr.) and sophomore Oscar Hampton (#45, 6-3) have 17 receptions each and have combined for 496 yards and nine TDs on the year.
Defensively, senior linebacker Collin Wren (#99, 5-9, 185) is the leader for the Bulldogs. Junior safety Alec Simmons (#2, 5-7, 145) and sophomore linebacker Damion Forehand (#45) are the next two leading tacklers on the Vancleave squad.
Kickoff for the matchup is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Wildcat stadium. Due to state regulations, only MHSAA State Passes will be accepted for admission. District and local passes are not valid for playoff game. Tickets for all playoff games are $8 each.
Fans unable to attend the game can watch the Wildcat’s live broadcast online at www.nfhsnetwork.com. But, King hopes local fans make every effort to pack the stadium in support of his team.
“This is a great time of year and we are hoping for a big home crowd for this playoff,” the third-year coach added.