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Win secures No. 3 seed for Cats and first round matchup at Columbia
By STAN CALDWELL / Herald Correspondent
Although Greene County knew it would be playing on the road next week in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs, the Wildcats still had plenty to play for in their regular-season finale.
The Wildcats needed to beat Pass Christian by seven or more point to improve its playoff position, and they did that and then some. Greene County used a multi-faceted offense and timely defense to claim a 33-17 victory over the Pirates in a big region 8-4A contest Thursday night at Johnny Ainsworth Field.
The Wildcats (5-5 overall, 2-2 region) secured the third seed in the region standings and will travel to face defending 4A state champion Columbia next to open the postseason. Fourth-seeded Pass Christian (5-4, 2-2) will play at Poplarville next week.
“I can’t say enough about this team,” said Greene County coach Michael King. “We had several starters out (with the flu), and there were times we could have hung our heads. But we bowed up when we needed to. This was a big win for us.”
Although there were plenty of heroes for Greene County, the one who stood tallest was senior tailback K.J. Miller, who rushed for 206 yards and a TD on 15 carries. He also caught eight passes for 63 yards and two scores.
“This was really a team effort,” Miller said. “We all came together to get the team win.”
“I think we’re a completely different team to what we were earlier in the season. I feel like we have enough athletes and guys who can make plays that we can go over there and pull off an upset.”
Miller was complemented by junior Keenan Franks, who added 77 yards on 14 carries and a 22-yard reception. Sophomore quarterback Coby King, who shook off four interceptions and still completed 21-of-28 passes for 238 yards and four touchdown passes.
“K.J. was out a couple of days earlier this week with the flu, and we knew he wasn’t 100 percent tonight,” said Coach King. “I told him that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put out that much effort when they were under the weather. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
In all, the Wildcats amassed 291 yards on the ground and finished with 529 yards of offense. Greene County only punted once, and that was a quick kick on a fourth-and-long in Pirate territory.
The Wildcats established their dominance right from the start. Senior B.J. Johnson took the opening kickoff 34 yards to the Pass 42-yard-line, and Greene County needed just six plays to score.
Franks took the first snap of the game around left end for 17 yards, then Miller swept around the right side for 22 yards and a first-and-goal at the Pirate 3-yard-line. The Wildcats needed four plays to get it in, but Miller took a shovel pass from 2 yards out and muscled his way into the end zone.
“We tried to use the momentum of the defense against them; get them going one way, then we’d go the other,” said Miller. “The coaches trust us enough to make athletic plays and finish off the runs.”
The Pirates got on the board in dramatic fashion when senior safety Aiden Dedeaux jumped a sideline route and dashed 59 yards for a pick-6 and a 7-7 tie.
But the Wildcats simply went right back to work, driving 75 yards on nine plays, scoring on another fourth down pass, this one a 32-yard strike from King to freshman Braedon Spivery. The PAT kick was no good, but the Wildcats still enjoyed a 13-7 lead.
“I just ran a deep post,” said Spivery. “I felt like Coach King had made a good call there on the goal line. Coby King put it right in my hands.”
Pass Christian finally some offense going, getting a 23-yard scamper and a 6-yard run from sophomore Jacquez Alexander-Dedeaux to the Wildcat 34.
But on second-and-4, sophomore linebacker Jairon Brown came free on a blitz and sacked Pirate quarterback Ladd Scriber for a 10-yard loss. That seemed to set the tone of the game for the Wildcat defense.
“Well, I missed a few tackles, so I needed something to boost my confidence,” said Brown. “I felt like that was a big play for us, something we needed to get some momentum.
“We stepped up when we needed to. I try to be a leader on the defense and put the team on my back.”
Pass got some good work from Alexander-Dedeaux, who carried 20 times for 136 yards, but he got little help against a swarming Wildcat defense.
“I thought the best thing we did was that when the moments were most crucial, we kind of elevated our game in those situations,” said King. “That hasn’t always been the case for us this year.”
“At times, we’d play well, then have a breakdown when it mattered the most. So I think that’s a sign that hopefully we’re maturing with all the young guys we’ve got out on the field. Tonight, when the pressure was on, they were at their best.”
The Pirates did, however, bracket halftime with their two best drives of the game. Pass drove from its own 29 to the Wildcat 8-yard-line late in the second quarter, but had to settle for a 29-yard field goal from junior Karsten Mooney with 29 seconds to play in the half.
Pass then came out for the second half with a momentum-shifting drive, moving 55 yards on just five plays. Alexander-Dedeaux had a 33-yard run to get the Pirates into position for the score, then burst up the middle for a 5-yard scoring run and a 17-13 lead.
Greene County came right back and drove to a first down at the Pirate 13, but two crippling penalties, an ineligible receiver foul and a holding call, stalled the drive.
On fourth-and 23 from the Pass 26, King was able to find Franks over the middle, but came up a yard short of the line to make and the ball went over to the Pirates.
No matter. The Wildcats got a stop and set off on the drive that put them ahead for good, a six-play, 68-yard march. Miller ignited the drive with a 36-yard run on a toss sweep, then King found sophomore tight end Cole Helton for 19 yards and a first-and-goal. On second down, King found sophomore Bryson Spivery for a 10-yard touchdown pass and a 20-17 lead with 28 seconds left in the third quarter.
After getting a fourth-down stop in the red zone – the Pirates were 0-for-3 on fourth down and 2-of-9 on third down for the game – the Wildcats once again were on the march, getting to the Pirate 31.
Pass stopped that drive with an interception and appeared to have some offensive momentum, driving to a first down in Wildcat territory at the 46-yard-line. But Brown made the defensive play of the game, stepping in front of a pass to get the ball right back.
“I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time,” said Brown. “We really needed that play. As soon as I caught it, I was thinking, ‘take it to the house.’ We still need to work on some things, but we’re playing well right now.”
Buoyed by the turnover, Miller followed a third-down, 37-yard play with a 4-yard touchdown off right tackle. The PAT was blocked, but the Wildcats had the margin they needed to step ahead of the Pirates in the standings.
“The line worked hard the whole game,” said Miller. “They were moving guys out of the way, opening the holes to where I could make the moves that I did.”
“That’s why I think the running game was so effective tonight. Whether I was going outside or inside, they did what they had to do to get the job done.”
Pass again drove into Wildcat territory, but on fourth-and-4 from the Greene County 25, Scriber’s pass fell incomplete.
On the next play, Miller burst through the middle of the line, cut to his right and needed just one block to find open field ahead of him for a game-clinching 75-yard touchdown run.
“Going into the drive, the game plan was to get a first down and run out the clock,” said Miller. “But when I saw the hole, I knew I had to hit it, and I knew they weren’t going to catch me in the open field. That score pretty much put the game out of reach for us.”
Braeden Spivery capped the night for the Wildcat defense by picking off a desperation heave with 49 seconds to play.
“I knew the game was over then,” said Spivery. “I knew they were going to try one deep, but I just came down with the ball.”
Greene County played Columbia in a preseason jamboree, so the two teams aren’t strangers, but King said a lot has changed for both teams since August.
“I think we’ll take a different team back over there,” said King. “We had a different identity; we were still trying to figure out who we were when we played over there earlier, and even several weeks after that.
“But some of those things have come together, so hopefully, we’ll be able to put a good product on the field and get everybody healthy. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”