With his team gathered tightly around him, Jay Beech challenged his Hornets.
“I’m beaming with pride. I’ve never seen a group of kids fight so hard against a great opponent. I’ve never seen that in my life,” the Poplarville coach told his players, some quietly sobbing after falling to East Central 52-45 in the MHSAA Class 4A South State championship game. “I didn’t know a human being could have that much fight in him as all 70 of you do. I have never been more proud of a group.”
Beech was right. There’s absolutely no reason for his Hornets to hang their heads after a game that will go down in Mississippi lore as one of the greatest. The rowdy crowd easily surpassed estimations of 5,000 and will likely only grow with time as more folks claim to have witnessed the great “Hornet Bowl.”
It’s not often games live up to the hype, but this one did.
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It would have been easy for the home Hornets to get down after Austin Bolton had an electrifying touchdown on the team’s first possession called back by a penalty. Or after East Central began to build a lead. But the home team, perhaps energized by the fans and emboldened by their coach, rallied to tie the game 45-45 late in the fourth quarter.
“For our kids to never get down, never get discouraged and to keep fighting, that was tremendous,” Beech said.
Both teams seemed to be on a collision course almost from the season’s opening kickoff. Both Hornets ran over, around and particularly through opponents to meet in Poplarville on Friday. Fans began lining up for tickets before noon and continued to pour in after kickoff. The hype was incredible even if it was hard to predict how the game would play out.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it might be a defensive game and then it wasn’t a defensive game,” Beech said. “We just play hard no matter what kind of game it is.”
Trailing 35-21 at halftime, Poplarville’s Amari Harmon yelled to the crowd, “ IT AIN’T OVER.”
Far from it.
The game didn’t turn out how Poplarville’s seniors wanted, with a return trip to the 4A championship, but Beech thanked his oldest players for raising the bar.
“They have won a lot of football games and have carried on the tradition. They’re great leaders, have worked hard in the weight room and set a great example for the younger kids,” Beech said. “I’m very proud of them and I’m going to miss them dearly. I wish we had them for one more week, but I don’t think they can hold their heads down after this one.”
The leader of the group who personified what it meant to be a Hornet, Austin Bolton, finished his final high school game with 246 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries.
“He’s a Warrior. He’s not only fast and has great moves, but he has everything else. He has the heart of a champion,” Beech said. “You could tell on that last play when he got the ball he barely got it. He was hitting the hole so hard and nobody was going to stop him.”
The Hornets finish the season 13-1.
“It stings, it hurts anytime you lose and to give such great effort, but I’m as proud of the kids tonight as I have ever been,” Beech said.