By STAN CALDWELL
LEAKESVILLE – With their backs against the wall, needing a win to secure a playoff berth, Greene County came through with its best game of the season.
The Wildcats matched region champion Poplarville score for score Friday night, and came away with a thrilling 29-28 victory over the Hornets in the Region 8-4A regular season finale at Johnny Ainsworth Field.
Greene County (3-6 overall, 2-2 region) clinched the No. 3 seed in the region and will travel to Raymond for its first-round clash. Poplarville (7-3, 3-1) had already secured the region’s top seed, and the Hornets will open the playoffs at home against Lanier.
“We told our kids that what Poplarville had that we didn’t have was confidence,” said Greene County coach Michael King. “The only way you get that is through past success. I told them that we’ve got to make some plays early in the game to build some confidence, and we did that.”
In a see-saw battle that saw both offense move the ball at will, it was Greene County that made the biggest play of the game, a 7-yard touchdown pass from junior Coby King.to sophomore Jase Matthews with 22 seconds left in the game.
Sophomore Maisen Tribble’s second attempt at a kick for the conversion – after the Hornets were flagged for roughing the kicker on the first – sailed through the uprights for the winning margin.
“I told the kids, ‘I know we can play with them,’” said Michael King. “Then at halftime, we said, ‘OK, I told you we can play with them, now I’m telling you we can beat this team if we come out and play the way we did in the first half.’”
On the first play after the kickoff, senior Treyvon Cooper picked off junior Sydney Blackmon’s pass to seal the win and send the Wildcats to the playoffs.
“I never had a single doubt that we could win,” said Matthews. “The whole team, we had faith. We were facing the No. 1 team in the region, so we knew we had to come with our best.”
Greene County set the tone for the game on the first possession of the game, taking the opening kickoff of the game on a 10-play, 65-yard scoring play, with senior Keenan Franks getting the score on a 4-yard run.
“We knew it was win or go home, so we had to show big tonight, and we did,” said junior quarterback Coby King. “I have to give all the credit to Jase. He went up and made a spectacular catch on that final throw.”
Poplarville responded on its first possession, marching 53 yards on 17 plays, eating up almost 10 minutes off the clock, with freshman Tylan Keys scoring from 7 yards out.
The Hornets converted three fourth downs on the drive, Keys on a 6-yard run on fourth-and-6 at the Wildcat 33-yard-line, senior Lane Amacker on a 9-yard run up the middle to the Wildcat 20 and Blackmon on a 6-yard keeper to the GC 7.
Keys had another big effort for Poplarville, carrying the ball 25 times for 141 yards and two scores.
Greene County, however, embarked on a long drive of its own, taking the ensuing kickoff 80 yards on 15 plays.
The biggest play in the drive, though, was one that wasn’t an official play, but a defensive holding call on fourth-and-5 from the Hornet 16, that set the Wildcats up at the Poplarville 8-yard line.
King ran for 5 yards on first down and Franks got the score on a 3-yard run. However, the PAT kick was no good, and the score remained 13-7.
“They came out with a lot of intensity,” said Poplarville coach Jay Beech. “I think maybe they played a little more intense than us.”
With 4 minutes, 22 seconds left in the first half, the Hornets drove as far as the Wildcat 10 before running out of time. Blackmon connected with freshman Payton Hart for a 40-yard pass play to get Poplarville into Wildcat territory.
However, Keys was stopped for a 2-yard gain on third-and-6 from the Greene County 12, and with no time outs remaining, the 26-yard field goal try as time expired with wide right, a defensive stop for Greene County that proved to be the difference.
Poplarville would not be denied on its first possession after halftime, driving 76 yards on nine plays. Another 40-yard pass play, this one from Blackmon to senior Lawrence Jamison, got the Hornets in position.
Keys followed with a 17-yard run and junior Nick Miller scored on an 11-yard run. Sophomore Kyler Booth put Poplarville ahead for the first time with a successful PAT kick.
Back came Greene County, as King connected with senior B.J. Johnson on big pass plays of 17 and 14 yards to senior B.J. Johnson, and King got the score himself on a 10-yard keeper. The PAT pass failed, but the Wildcats were back on top 19-14.
King was a thorn in Poplarville’s side all night, completing 17 of 26 passes for 166 yards and he ran 11 times for 66 yards.
“It was nice to have B.J. and Jase on the field at the same time for the first time all year,” said Coby King. “A lot of people don’t know we’ve been playing without our top guys. Whenever you get them together, we’re really hard to stop.”
Once again, Poplarville answered, moving 64 yards on 11 plays. Keys had a big 12-yard run to the Greene County 21, then Amacker had a 15-yard run to the Wildcat 6. Keys got 5 yards, then Blackmon plunged in for the touchdown.
The Wildcats stuffed the PAT run, but the Hornets had a 20-19 lead with 10:45 to play.
However, Greene County came right back. Johnson took the ensuing kickoff 33 yards to the Wildcat 46, King ran for 17 yards on the first play of the drive, then hooked up with Johnson for a 26-yard pickup to the Hornet 10.
“We simplified the run game,” said Michael King. “We only ran about two or three run plays all night, and our linemen felt confident in the play call, so they came off the ball really hard.
“Keenan did a really good job from A-gap to A-gap, and we kept them honest on the perimeter with our receivers, so they couldn’t crowd the box. That was huge for us.”
Poplarville held this time, but Tribble converted a 27-yard field goal to give the Wildcats the lead again, 22-20 with 7:20 to go.
This time, the Hornets wasted little time regaining the lead, going 53 yards on just four plays. Keys had a 22-yard run. Amacker went for 18 and Keys got the touchdown on an 11-yard burst up the middle.
Blackmon passed to Keys for the two-point conversion to give Poplarville a 28-22 lead. However, that would be the last time Keys touched the ball.
It took some big-time heroics for Greene County to score the winning touchdown. Matthews made a leaping catch on fourth-and-13 from the Poplarville 47, King converted a third down with a 3-yard run to the Hornet 9-yard-line, and the score also came on fourth down.
“The first one was a busted play,” said Matthews. “Coby caught me on the back side and made an amazing throw. The second one, Coach called it; he trusted me to make the last play. Coby gave me a good ball. Touchdown.”
For the game, Greene County was 6-of-10 on third down and 3-for-3 on fourth down.
“Whenever we had to have it, my guys showed out,” said Coby King. “Jase making crazy catches, B.J. making plays, my offensive line blocking for me. I just tried to put them in a good position, and they paid off.”
Despite the loss, Poplarville will regroup as it prepares for postseason.
“We’re still (region) champs, with a 7-3 season,” said Beech. “Not many people expected that from us with such a young team, so I told the kids they can be proud of that. We did what we had to do to win the (region) and now we’re looking forward to the playoffs.”
Greene County, which wasn’t expected to even be here after a disappointing season until this week, now prepares for a road trip for the first round.
“The adversity we’ve been through this season has been challenging,” said Michael King.
“We knew we had a good team coming into the season, and we have just not had the ball bounce our way when it comes to injuries, not playing well at times. So it was really awesome to put it all together when it counted the most.”