PASCAGOULA - After a week full of tears, the Pascagoula football team finally had reason to smile Friday night.
Wearing an "MJ" decal on their helmets in honor of their fallen teammate, Keith Joseph Jr., the Panthers rolled to a 36-8 victory over Brookhaven in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
A pair of seniors, quarterback Jakwaize Walker and defensive back Devonte Thompson, were the stars on the field, but both players turned conversation to Joseph after the game.
After leaving a visitation with the Joseph family in tears earlier in the day, Walker wore a big grin Friday night.
"I was real motivated because (Joseph) meant so much to me," Walker said. "He was like a big brother. He pushed me harder than anyone else could push me. I always know he's out there helping us throughout the game. We had a lot of mishaps happen throughout the game, but you can always feel him right there. All I can say is God is good."
Keith Joseph Jr., a freshman football player at Mississippi State, and his father died in a single-automobile accident near Leakesville on Nov. 6 and emotions are still close to the surface for head coach Lewis Sims, his staff and players.
Sims praised his players for maintaining focus despite dealing with the tragedy.
"We earned another week of practice. I told the guys yesterday afternoon that I'm not ready for this to end," Sims said with his voice cracking.
The lone captain for Pascagoula Friday night was the player who wears Joseph's old number, No. 9 Jonathan Boulton.
It was Boluton who helped capped of the game with a sack in the final moments.
"Bolton getting a sack, what more could you do to honor No. 9," Sims said.
Pascagoula also had the 9 yard line painted in red and there was a moment of silence just before kickoff where the Panthers' kickoff return unit stood on the field with their helmets in hand.
Pascagoula (9-3) will travel to Laurel at 7 p.m. on Friday in the second round of the playoffs.
Thompson had his biggest game of the season, pulling in a pair of interceptions, blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown.
"What more can you ask for?" Sims said. "You saw tremendous effort from our guys."
Thompson's blocked punt came at the 9:59 mark of the second quarter, scooping the ball up in Brookhaven territory and running untouched into the end zone to make it 16-0.
"I just came free. It was too easy," Thompson said.
Walker led the way on offense with 20 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown. He also completed 3-of-7 passes for 48 yards.
"Jakwaize is a special player. He has stepped up and played both sides of the ball," Sims said. "He's a tremendous talent, a tremendous young man. He's courageous. He did a lot of good things for us."
A Kenneth Dixon touchdown run cut the Pascagoula lead to 16-8 at the 8:56 mark of the third quarter, but the Panthers answered with a 9-yard touchdown run by Walker to put the Panthers back in charge.
Hunter Collins, Marcus Haynes and Reginald Hunter also had rushing touchdowns in the game.
Hunter sat out the second half after rushing 12 times for 63 yards and a score in the first half.