After putting his team through one last practice Thursday morning for the Class 4A South State title game, East Central football coach Seth Smith will make the trip from Hurley to the Sones Chapel community in Pearl River County to spend the rest of Thanksgiving with family.
Twenty-four hours later and just 9 miles away, he’ll be leading his Hornets into the biggest game of his career and it will come against a man he grew up considering his best friend — Poplarville head coach Jay Beech.
“Jay was always that guy who was good at everything and it didn’t matter the sport,” Smith said. “I think he was voted ‘most handsome’ every year in high school. Anytime you’re with him, you’re always the ugly duckling. Our goal Friday is to make sure we’re not the ugly duckling.”
Beech greeted the “most handsome” and “ugly duckling” references with an eye roll and the understanding that it’s just Seth being Seth. He has grown accustomed to Smith’s ribbing.
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“He’s got a good memory,” Beech said. “If something happens, he always remembers. I get the ‘most handsome’ deal all the time. I don’t know. He’s got a photographic memory and he’ll mention something that happened 10 years ago.”
While Beech is the low-key leader of an emerging Class 4A power at Poplarville, Smith is the ever-energetic and boisterous head coach of an East Central program that’s never been this far in the postseason.
“I’m always a little more aggravating,” Smith said. “He was laid back, and I was a little more annoying.
“He’s always been a great guy, a high-character man. He’s a really good person.”
Smith and his wife, Devin, grew up in the same group of friends with Beech at Pearl River Central High School.
“We were just good buddies, enjoyed being around each other,” Beech said. “We had the same interests, liked playing video games against each other. It was the same group of friends through high school and we’re still friends.”
When asked when was the last time the two men had faced off in a game, Smith joked, “In 1997, I beat him in an ‘NCAA Gamebreaker’ tournament” — a nod to their favorite football video game as kids.
Friday’s game will mark the first time the two men have met as head coaches.
East Central rolls in at a dominant 12-0 for Friday’s 7 p.m. kickoff while Poplarville, which will host the game, is 13-0 and the defending Class 4A South State champion. The game has been dubbed the ‘Hornet Bowl.’
Smith and Beech, who was the Sun Herald Coach of the Year in 2016, have become two of the top high school football coaches in South Mississippi early in their careers. Beech is in his fourth year as head coach at Poplarville and Smith is in his fifth at East Central.
Smith and Beech were high school teammates at Pearl River Central and at Pearl River Community College. Smith was a linebacker for both programs while Beech moved from his running back/safety role at Pearl River Central to join Smith in the PRCC linebacking corps.
Hard work pays off
After their playing days were done, they stayed with the game they love and chose to enter coaching.
They were on the same staff at Pearl River Central in 2009 and 2010 when the Blue Devils won just one game over those two seasons.
“We had some good times and bad times,” Beech said. “We stuck with it and we’re very blessed to be in a game of this magnitude.
“Often times you learn the most when you’re struggling.”
Smith, who is never one to shy away from showing emotion, is looking forward to the opportunity to face his good friend on such a big stage.
“I don’t mind being mushy. How can I not be?” Smith said. “It’s extremely rewarding. It brings you a lot of joy. We grew up country boys who loved football. We played in the yard and any type of game you could think of. In high school, we played for coach Curtis Thaxton and we loved it. It goes to show you that if you attack something with a love and a passion, neat things happen. It’s extra special doing it with people you grew up with.”
Beech is far from the lone member of the Poplarville staff who is close with Smith. His cousin, Jacob Owen, is the offensive coordinator and his brother-in-law, Cruz Russell, is the receivers coach.
“It’s extremely humbling to play in a game you worked so hard for, and to get to do it against people I love,” Smith said. “I’ll probably shed a tear of joy before we kick off.”