It’s the goal of every high school football coach and player to hold a practice on Thanksgiving and that’s exactly what the Poplarville and East Central squads did Thursday morning before scattering to spend the rest of the holiday with their families.
At 7 p.m. on Friday at Poplarville, the two teams will collide in the “Hornet Bowl” to decide the Class 4A South State championship.
Poplarville (13-0) is seeking its second consecutive South State title while East Central (12-0) is hoping for its first. The winner of Louisville-Noxubee County awaits in the 4A state championship game at 3 p.m. on Dec. 2 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.
The East Central-Poplarville match-up is one that much of South Mississippi has been anticipating since the early stages of the season. It finally comes to fruition Friday with both teams featuring undefeated records.
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While East Central has dominated the competition for much of the season, head coach Seth Smith knows that his team’s biggest test awaits.
“They’re as good as advertised,” Smith said. “They’re the No. 1 team in (Class 4A) for a reason. (Head coach Jay Beech and offensive coordinator Jacob Owen) do an unbelievable job with that offense. They’re a well-oiled machine. We have to get prepared. Me and Jay worked together under Eric Collins at Pearl River Central and he soaked up that Wing-T.”
Poplarville has averaged 42 points a game this season while East Central has put up 48 points a contest.
The East Central offense has continued to put up more points with each week and is averaging 57 points a game over its last eight games.
“It’s been shock and awe for East Central,” Beech said. “They’ve been overpowering guys. They blow people away on offense and they’re in attack mode on defense. Teams have wilted under their pressure. They force teams into a bunch of bad plays. Their defense forces a bunch of turnovers. They’re just relentless. We’ll have to withstand that pressure.”
Friday’s game features a battle of two of the most productive running backs in the state – Poplarville senior Austin Bolton and East Central senior Tony Brown.
Even though he missed a couple of games with a sprained, Bolton has run 191 times for 2,057 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Beech believes Bolton is in good shape for Friday night after suffering the injury late in the regular season. He ran 19 times for 151 yards and had one catch for 62 yards in a 33-12 win at Purvis last week.
“He looked good Friday,” Beech said. “I didn’t see any signs of his knee bothering him. He’s right at 100 percent.”
Brown has been on a touchdown binge lately, including an eight-TD effort in a 77-32 win over South Pike. He has 26 touchdowns over the last five games.
For the season, Brown has run 219 times for 2,376 yards and 42 touchdowns.
East Central defense
Led by junior linebacker Avery White and senior safety Andrew Seward, the East Central defense has been outstanding all season with only 88 offensive points allowed this year. The Hornets did give up a season-high of 32 points last week, but Smith expects his group to be up to the task.
“They’ll bounce back,” he said. “They’ll respond. We had some kids misaligned last week and that’s a credit to their quarterback. They were on the field for 70 plays and that hasn’t happened all year.”
The East Central defense may be helped by the potential return of senior linebacker Cade Miles, who suffered a torn ACL in the regular season finale at Vancleave. He has been going through rehab to try to return for this game.
Against Poplarville, Smith knows his defense will have to be on its game.
“When you play a Wing-T, if one kid misaligns or steps in the wrong gap, they’re going to score,” he said. “They’re going to try to be efficient. We’ve got to be efficient and be gap sound. If we get caught going for the eye candy, it can get really bad.”
Who: East Central vs. Poplarville
When: 7 p.m., Friday
Where: Poplarville High School
Radio: EastCentralHornets.com, wrjwradio.com