Five weeks ago, the Pascagoula football team was stumbling through a three-game losing skid to begin the season.
At 7 p.m. on Friday at Hattiesburg, the Panthers can become serious contenders for the Region 4-5A championship.
No. 6 Pascagoula (4-3, 3-0) is riding a four-game win streak as it prepares to take on a Hattiesburg team that is widely considered one of the most talented teams in South Mississippi regardless of classification.
The Tigers (5-3, 2-1) are coming off a 56-48 loss at No. 1 Picayune (7-0, 3-0), which is the team to beat in 4-5A with four weeks remaining in the regular season.
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If Pascagoula wins Friday, it can become Picayune’s biggest challenger. The two teams are set to meet on Oct. 28 in Picayune and Pascagoula has won three of its last four games against the Maroon Tide.
Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance understands what’s on the line Friday night.
“Pascagoula knows what’s at stake. We knows what’s at stake,” Vance said. “The team that wins this game finishes no worse than second in the division. The team that loses could finish third, fourth or not even make the playoffs.”
Pascagoula head coach Lewis said sees Hattiesburg as a tall task.
“They’re the preseason pick to win 5A,” Pascagoula coach Lewis Sims said of Hattiesburg. “It’s supposed to be between them, Laurel, Picayune, Oxford and West Point. They are pretty daggum special.”
Pascagoula edged Hattiesburg 21-18 in a game in Pascagoula last season that featured an impressive running back duel between Hattiesburg’s Fabian Franklin, then a sophomore, and Pascagoula’s Reginald Hunter. Franklin ran 22 times for 164 yards and a score while Hunter had 26 carries for 163 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown.
Franklin, who already holds offers from Alabama, Ole Miss and Tennessee, hasn’t disappointed as a junior. He has 100 carries for 743 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Julian Conner has also been impressive as the Hattiesburg quarterback. He has completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 2,132 yards, 25 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“He’s got as many yards as we do as a team,” Sims said with a laugh. “They’re a year older and just better. Last year, they came in a little banged up. (Franklin) came in last year and just killed us.”
Pascagoula’s offense, which has 2,243 yards total, has found its stride in recent weeks behind a healthy Hunter, who missed a pair of games after being injured in the season opener.
Hunter has run 68 times for 568 yards and seven scores in five games and fellow senior Javarous Walker has 86 carries for 522 yards and three touchdowns.
Hunter has increasingly become the workhorse of the Pascagoula offense.
“He’s getting better every day,” Sims said. “He’s trying to lock in and be the very best back he can be. Also having Javarous, Trey Abney and Demyreon Boyce, those are four guys that push each other to get better.”
Pascagoula has also picked it up on the defensive side of the ball, allowing an average of 12.7 points over the last three contests.
Pascagoula senior linebacker Matt Inlow leads his team and the Coast with 98 tackles.
“He’s been a consummate leader on the defensive side,” Sims said. “He makes mistakes, but he makes mistakes at full speed. Even when he makes mistakes, he flies to the football. He had a season high of 22 tackles and that’s the first time I’ve seen that as a head coach.”
Inlow and company will have their hands full on Friday against Hattiesburg.
“We’ve got to play clean, through the whistle,” Sims said. “We’ve got to protect the football and force turnovers. We’ve got to gang tackle and run to the football. Those are the biggest things we have to do.”
Who: Pascagoula vs. Hattiesburg
When: 7 p.m. Friday
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