It all started with the opening kickoff.
Raheem Willis took the ball 99 yards to the house, and the Tigers were off to the races. That helped Hattiesburg jump up big on its way to a 49-33 win over Stone, claiming second place in Region 4-5A. Stone fell to fourth.
Hattiesburg will host Brookhaven in the first round of the 5A playoffs, while Stone travels to Laurel.
“Great job on the kickoff return right there,” Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said. “It really set the tone for the first half, especially.”
Hattiesburg scored two more times in the first quarter and twice in the second to grab control of the game. It wasn’t until the Tigers had a 21-0 lead when the Tomcats scored.
The Tigers’ defense proved to be tough in the early portion of the ballgame, forcing the Tomcats’ stout rushing attack into two straight three-and-outs to start the game. In the meantime, the Tigers’ offense was running on all cylinders.
A combination of senior Julian Conner, junior Fabian Franklin and sophomore Drexlan Allen rushed the ball to the Tomcats’ 10-yard line, then Conner found junior D’andre Humbles for the touchdown.
On Hattiesburg’s next drive, it needed just six plays to travel 64 yards, and all of those yards were on the ground. Franklin punched the ball in from the 6-yard line to give the Tigers a 21-0 lead.
Once Stone received the ensuing kickoff and started its drive, the Tomcats finally woke up. Senior Terrion Avery carried the ball on all seven plays for 65 yards, capping off the drive with an 8-yard touchdown.
After that, Stone had no problem moving the ball. Avery finished with 284 yards on 37 carries and a score.
“We just came out and realized we’re all human, and they decided to fight back,” Stone coach John Feaster said.
However, the Stone defense had no answer for Hattiesburg’s offense and special teams. Allen scored on back-to-back possessions for Hattiesburg, and those scores were sandwiched around a Stone touchdown, too.
Hattiesburg used a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive to jump up 28-7, then Stone’s senior quarterback Preston Stringer answered with a 1-yard quarterback sneak to cut the Tigers’ lead to 28-13.
“When you play a team like that, eventually they’re going to find something that works, and they did,” Vance said. “Credit to coach Feaster, he’s doing a great job over there.”
Allen added a 4-yard score on the next possession to bring the score to 35-13 at halftime.
Stone had an opportunity to cut into the lead to start the third quarter, but when the Tomcats lined up for a 45-yard field, Hattiesburg senior Reggie Williams blocked the attempt and junior Dennis Payton scooped the ball up and sprinted for the 60-yard touchdown to make it 42-13.
“(Special teams) is something we really work on, and it’s something we probably don’t get enough credit for the work we do on special teams,” Vance said. “We spend a lot of our practice time on special teams, and it paid off for us tonight.”
Stone was able to get back on the board early in the fourth quarter, as junior Kentrell McCray scored from the 16-yard line to bring the game to 42-20. Then, the Tomcats caught Hattiesburg sleeping with an onside kick, which they recovered and converted into another touchdown.
“It’s very tough (to keep up with Hattiesburg’s offense), but it’s extremely tough when you give up special teams touchdowns and give up field position,” Feaster said. “All in all, they’re a well-coached team and they’re rolling.”
Both teams added another score to bring the game to its final, 49-33. Sophomore Jarod Conner’s 1-yard touchdown iced the game, and Stone’s McCray scored from with 30 second remaining in the game.