Hancock High hosted its first playoff game since 1990.
Their reward for the narrow 30-27 win against perennial post-season participant Brandon at Brett Favre Stadium? Well now the Hawks get to travel for the second round of the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs to face an undefeated Pearl team that many have pointed to as being Mississippi’s top team; the Pirates (13-0) finished regular season ranked No. 2 in the state according to the Associated Press.
“Eventually we’re going to have to play them,” Hancock High coach Neil Lollar said Wednesday. “Every team now is good, big and fast. It’s not any different story than we’ve been telling them. They know and understand. It’s a situation where we’re embracing the opportunity to get to go and do this.
“We also understand we have to continue to be Hancock. As long as we continue to do that, I like what we do.”
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In his first season as head coach, Lollar has breathed life back into a program that last made the playoffs in 2014. The Hawks have had non-region success in the past, but this year they carried over their early momentum and clinched the second spot in Region 4-6A. Now, Hancock will likely face its greatest test of the season. The players and coaches have been pulled all sorts of ways by a well-meaning and supportive community that has rallied around the program.
With everything going on externally, however, Lollar said the Hawks are doing their best to stay grounded and, as cliche as it sounds, take each day one at a time.
“This group has great senior leadership. They have done a good job of staying in the moment. I know the community and everybody is really excited, and rightfully so, but as far as the kids, I tell them all the time these walls and this field is where we are,” Lollar said. “We’re going up there as a business trip.”
Scouting the Pirates
In scouting Friday night’s 7 p.m. opponent, Lollar said he sees a well rounded team with few blemishes.
“They’re very explosive offensively and can score at any position on the field,” Lollar said. “Their defense is extremely fast and talented. I know they have several players on both sides of the ball have college offers and deservedly so.
“They’re not 13-0 because some kind of trick or fluke. That record is there for a reason.”
The Hancock secondary will have to be ready once again this week. Senior quarterback Jake Smithhart has thrown for 2,150 yards and 26 touchdowns to lead the Pearl attack. At his disposal are five different receivers who have caught at least 13 passes and four touchdowns. On the ground, senior running back Johnny Winston has rushed for 850 yards and 12 scores.
Defensively, the Pirates have combined to intercept 13 passes and have recorded 22 sacks.
Somewhat similarly to Pearl, Hancock (10-2) has gotten the job done all year with a by-committee approach. There hasn’t exactly been one player the Hawks have leaned on all year. On any given night a different Hawk may step up and lead the team.
Offensively, quarterback Caleb Garcia, running backs Rondell Womack and Marquis Cherry, and receiver Brooks Rayburn have all taken turns in the spotlight. Chase McDonald and Trenton Ladner, defensively, have shouldered the brunt of the attention, but plenty other Hawks have also risen to the challenge along the way.
“We have had a good group who have toted the load for the majority of the year, but it’s pretty spread out,” Lollar said. “There’s not one guy, but two or three who can potentially be ‘the man’ on that side of the ball on any given night.”
Last week it was Rayburn’s turn to step up and be one of the Hawks’ stars. The junior had his biggest game of the season, hauling in five passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns. The big performance gave Rayburn 27 receptions for 641 yards and 10 touchdowns on the year.
“Brooks has been steady all year. When he gets the opportunity to make a play or score, he does so. He makes the most of each opportunity,” Lollar said. “He’s unique where he’s a 6-2, 175 wide receiver who can absolutely run. His routes are very crisp. Most of his stuff is generated from his ability to work defenders.
“Caleb and Brooks have a very good relationship. They always seem to be timed up.”
When comparing the two schools it’s hard to deny the fact Pearl has won at least 11 games in four of the last five years while Hancock is riding its best season in recent memory. From Day 1, Lollar has believed in the power of positivity without trying to sugar coat the Hawks’ situation.
This week’s no different — despite the magnitude of both the moment and opponent.
“We know who they are. We’re aware of the road they’ve taken. They’ve been at the top all year,” he said. “Our kids understand where we’re coming from. They relish in that role, too. This is our moment to show somebody. They don’t look at it as us against the world, just another opportunity to prove that we can go 1-0 this week and that we’re supposed to be where we are.”
Who: Hancock at Pearl
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Online: Live score updates will be provided at SunHerald.com.