I've covered No. 1 Gulfport a number of times this season and after each game I've come away impressed for one reason or another.
We caught plenty of flack -- probably deservedly so ... -- for not ranking Gulfport high enough heading into the season. After Friday's 24-7 win over Ocean Springs, coach Eddie Pierce and several others affiliated with the Admirals opened up to say they, too, didn't quite know what to expect heading into the season with the amount of production Gulfport graduated.
"I'll be honest, I don't think anybody knew what to expect when we first got this team together; even in the spring," Pierce said Friday. "As we began to work out in the heat, these kids came together in the summer and when we started practicing in the fall we could tell there was chemistry here. This is the most unselfish team I have ever been a part of -- and that's in 33 years of coaching."
2. Buying in
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The thought of "buying in" has come up in almost every post-game interview with Pierce. Plenty of coaches only communicate with reporters in "coach speak," but with Pierce a lot of the chemistry talk comes across as honest and his players seem to back it up on the field.
"They genuinely pull for one another and want to win," he said. "I think our coaches do a great job with them during the week, and they work hard. They just have great team chemistry. It's a joy to go to practice every day, it really is."
3. Showing signs
It came after a loss, but Pierce said he first thought GHS had a chance to do something special in the Admirals' loss at Alabama power Prattville. Gulfport scored 13 fourth-quarter points but were unable to complete the rally, falling 21-16. Still, Pierce recalls being taken by the way his players continued to fight in the fourth.
"Even though we lost the game, when we played Prattville and had a chance to win late in the game I thought this team had a chance to win against anybody," he said. "And then when we beat St. Martin out here that night I said I thought this team had something special. Every week they have found ways to win. Boy I'm proud of them."
Now the Admirals are back at No. 1 in South Mississippi with a week until the post-season begins.
4. Giving the Admirals a kick
The Coast has some great kickers this season -- St. Martin's Sean Gomez, Vancleave's Taylor Crabtree, Ocean Springs' Brad Wall and D'Iberville's Cory Ladner immediately come to mind.
Reliable kickers are weapons who ultimately get overlooked when it comes to handing out recognition unless the game came down to a last-second field goal or a botched extra point.
Friday night, a perhaps unlikely kicker may have forced his way into the Coast conversation -- Gulfport kicker Cain Suddith.
Heading into the OSHS game, Suddith had converted just a 38-yard field goal all season. Friday, he booted two 36-yard field goals on top of a 20-yarder and one from 43.
I remembered Pierce pacing around before the season-opening Shrimp Bowl. He was watching Suddith warm up maybe more intently than I've ever noticed a head coach watch a kicker before a game. When I asked Pierce about Suddith on Friday, I found out why.
"Here's a guy who had never played a game of football in his life until (St.) Stanislaus," Pierce said. "Just a pleasant surprise. He's a kid who came in off of the soccer field. He came in about a week after we started practicing and just started kicking, so I said, 'OK, you're the guy."
For what it's worth, according to MaxPreps.com, seven of the 10 longest field goals in Mississippi this season belong to Coast kickers: Pascagoula's Griffin Sublett (55 yards), Crabtree (53), Wall (51), Gomez (50), Biloxi's Kevin Martinez (47), Bay High's Mark Johnson (46) and Gautier's Josh Penton (46).
5. More offers coming?
Gulfport running back Deon Cole seems to have the height (5-11), weight (210) and speed (4.41-second 40-yard dash, according to Hudl). He certainly has the production and has eclipsed his junior totals of 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns with a team-best 1,401 and 11 this season. Despite running at a 7.8 yard clip, Cole said his lone offers have come from Gulf Coast, Jones and Northeast.
"No big colleges have offered yet, but I pray they're coming," he said Friday.
Cole said he gained nearly 20 pounds this offseason and still maintained his speed. He's proven to be a versatile athlete for the Admirals, returning interceptions for lengthy touchdowns in consecutive weeks, and should be a difference maker at running back on the next level.
Where Cole separates himself from other high school backs -- to me, anyway -- is with his patience. While some backs plow into their offensive linemen and look to bore a hole through the line, Cole shows a mature vision and patience to let the play develop before hitting warp speed through the seam. He also possesses the ability keep his legs churning to move the pile and he continually falls forward to gain an extra yard or two.
It's tough to top the "Cole Train" when it comes to high school running backs in the state.
6. Getting started
Good luck to the Coast's five Class 4A teams opening the playoffs Friday. None of the team look to have an easy road to Oxford.
Vancleave (4-7) opens at Mendenhall (7-4), which won its last two games. East Central (6-4) will host Northeast Jones (7-3), which has won its last three games and out-scored opponents 272-191 overall. Moss Point (5-5) travels to a 9-2 West Lauderdale team, while Poplarville must travel to a 9-2 McComb team that beat Harrison Central earlier in the year. St. Stanislaus hosts 2-9 Quitman, but then must go through the winner of McComb/Poplarville. One would think the South's road to Oxford would go through Bay St. Louis, but anything can happen once the playoffs crank up.
7. Unlikely World Series connections
South Mississippi didn't have any players on Kansas City or New York in the World Series, but the two Royals who scored -- and drove in -- the winning run have Coast ties.
It's not quite "six degrees of Kevin Bacon," but Royals infielder Christian Colon and outfielder Jarrod Dyson are connected to Biloxi.
Current Indians athletic director Tom Gladney coached at Midway High outside of Waco, Texas, for 10 years prior to moving to the Coast. During that time, a middle infielder moved to town from Puerto Rico and immediately forced himself into the starting lineup at second base as a 14-year-old freshman. That second baseman was Colon, who ended up sparking the Royals in the 12th inning by driving in the winning run on a single to left-center.
To say Colon was a lightly used infielder for the Royals this post-season would be giving the 26-year-old too much credit. Colon was practically the last man off the bench for K.C. and hadn't seen action since the regular season finale Oct. 4. Still, Colon made the most of his opportunity.
"I was laying on the couch watching the game and I thought the longer this game goes, he might have a chance to get in, especially with the National League rules. He came up to bat and I was double checking to make sure it was really him," Gladney said Monday. "(When he made contact) I got chill bumps."
8. Scoring the run
Dyson, a former McComb High standout and Southwest C.C. outfielder, had entered the game moments before as a pinch runner for catcher Salvador Perez.
Gladney said Dyson was actually coached at McComb by Ted Milton, who also spent time in Gulfport's school district and is now helping with Biloxi's middle school program.
"So here we have the guy who drove in the winning run and the (guy who scored the) winning run both coached by guys at Biloxi," Gladney said.
9. The (Other) Patrick's Picks
For entertainment purposes ... Mississippi State is only a 7 1/2-point favorite (according to MGM Resorts International) at Missouri. The Bulldogs could be a 21-point favorite and I'd probably still pick them. Missouri has been a hot mess this season, especially late ... Georgia (-14) was royally thumped by Florida. Kentucky ain't Florida -- or even their second string. Bulldogs figure some things out and win by 10 ... Vanderbilt (+21) just lost at Houston by 34. Now they're headed to The Swamp. It won't be pretty. Gators name their score ... South Carolina (+16) has been lost this season. The hierarchy of "lost" in the SEC this season starts with Vanderbilt, then Missouri and ends with USC. Vols should take it to the Gamecocks ... Ole Miss (-10 1/2), without QB Bo Wallace, was annihilated last year at Arkansas. The Rebels return the favor against a Hogs squad that's down two running backs, among other starters ... In Kyler Murray we trust. Aggies (-7) continue to rain on Auburn ... In the mega matchup of the week I think LSU's one-dimensional offense is exposed at Alabama. Leonard Fournette still gets his, but the Tide win by 7.
Patrick Ochs, a Sun Herald sports reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at PatrickOchs.