Picayune snatches victory in final seconds against Wayne County
He never looked up. He just waited for the crowd.
Even once the ball left Isidro Loya's foot and spiraled end over end toward the upright, Picayune's kicker kept his head down; the follow-through is key.
“When everybody started screaming, I knew it was good,” Loya said of his game-winning 30-yard field goal Friday night that lifted Picayune past Wayne County 40-38 at Lee/Triplett Stadium. “… That's when I knew it went through.”
The Tide's decisive drive was anything but routine.
Having just surrendered the go-ahead score in the South State semifinals with only1:34 remaining, Picayune mounted a voracious 80-yard drive.
Trailing 38-37, Picayune flipped the field with an 8-yard pass from Skylar Bowman to V.J. Holt and 59 yards on four rushes by Shaun Anderson and Blake Merrifield. The big gains, in addition to three incompletions, set up Loya's kick with just 8.2 seconds remaining.
“We came out throwing and I noticed they kind of changed their defense and were playing pass,” Picayune coach Dodd Lee said of the team's go-ahead drive. “If you play pass against us I know we can run the football and we were able to break some runs.
“The kids had to believe they could do it. I told them in the huddle if they don't learn anything, I want them to learn what it takes to have a heart of a champion. They fought for every inch of the field in the fourth quarter.”
Wayne County (7-6) couldn't return the ensuing kick, ending the game and sending Picayune (12-1) on to the Class 5A South State finals against Laurel. The Golden Tornadoes defeated Hattiesburg 45-42 in a similar shootout.
As a group, Picayune, Laurel and Wayne County have had quite the run.
Picayune and Wayne County have met in four straight postseasons, with the winner going on to win the 5A title in two of the last three meetings prior to Friday.
Picayune won in 2013 before going on to beat Oxford for the state championship. The last two years, Wayne County got the best of the Tide, with the War Eagles beating Oxford for the 2015 title. What about 2014? That was Picayune's next opponent, Laurel, who won it all to keep the golden football in the southern portion of Mississippi.
“It's not revenge. Those guys are good guys,” Lee said of Friday's win. “I'm just glad we won.”
Picayune came out and dominated the first half Friday, taking a 22-7 lead into halftime. Wayne County quarterback Zabryan Jackson had minimal time to pass and was pressured the entire half, scoring the War Eagles' lone score of the first 24 minutes on a 9-yard keeper.
Jackson heated up in the second half, however, accounting for three of Wayne County's four second-half touchdowns. The shifty junior rushed for a 5-yard score and threw touchdown passes of 19 and 23 yards to Garius Myers and Will Mangum. He finished with 167 yards passing and 99 rushing.
“They ran the football real well,” Lee said. “We were blitzing and they knew we were blitzing. They did what they had to do to block us. … That's a good football team over there. We're just glad to get out of here with this.”
After the War Eagles mostly dominated the third quarter, the two teams mostly traded shots in the final frame.
After Merrifield scored on a 41-yard dart up the middle, breaking at least three different tackle attempts en route to the end zone, Wayne County's Heath Mosley converted a 23-yard field goal to push the visitors ahead 31-29.
Picayune marched down the field and Bowman found Holt wide open over the middle for a 36-yard touchdown. David Baker, who scored two first-half touchdowns on 3-yard runs, powered his way into the end zone on the two-point conversion giving the Tide a 37-31 lead.
Wayne County returned the kickoff deep into Picayune's territory and with 1:34 remaining, running back Chris Cooley followed the War Eagles' power set across the goal line on fourth down. The 1-yard score gave Wayne County the short lived 38-37 lead.
Joshua Littles has been hobbled of late with an injury, but he certainly made the most of his 25 carries Friday. While he wasn't himself, the senior speedster broke a 62-yard touchdown run with 3:38 remaining in the first half and finished with a game-high 182 yards.
“I seen it and just hit it full speed as fast as I can,” Littles said. “My ankle is bothering me a little bit but I just had to fight through it.”
Bowman finished the game 8 of 15 passing with 95 yards and a touchdown. Merrifield and Andrews rushed for 97 and 90 yards respectively. Holt was one of five Tide players to catch a pass and finished with 56 yards and a touchdown on three receptions.
Coming off of a disappointing 5-7 campaign a year ago, the Tide has rolled through its schedule to date with its lone hiccup coming in the form of a 38-31 double overtime loss to former Lee protege John Feaster, who is now at Stone.
Junior linebacker Brian Taylor, who helped force a safety early in the second quarter, believes the team's season as a whole has served notice to the rest of the state.
“This is a comeback season,” he said. “We here. We ain't left yet. We back.”
Picayune hosts Laurel on Friday with a trip to Starkville for the Class 5A championship on the line.