Pearl River County has served as home to some of South Mississippi's best high school football over the last decade.
On Friday night, the county's football prowess will again be on full display.
Picayune hosts Laurel in the Class 5A South State title game and Florence will be at Poplarville in the Class 4A South State title contest.
Picayune, which has three state championships, has long been a contender for state titles while Poplarville and Pearl River Central have featured resurgent programs in recent years.
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Separated by about 25 miles in I-59, the Poplarville and Picayune communities have shared encouraging words through social media this week.
While Picayune and Poplarville haven't played a football game since 2008, the two staffs know each other well and the two teams scrimmaged in the spring.
“They're good folks and good people,” Picayune coach Dodd Lee said Tuesday of the staff at Poplarville. “I know they're working hard and are proud of their kids just like we are. It's a good time of the year. We were talking about it today. This is our fifth Thanksgiving to still be working. That's the ultimate reward for all high school coaches.”
Lee is in search of his third state championship at Picayune after winning in 2011 and 2013.
Poplarville head coach Jay Beech is hoping to accomplish a first for his program. The Hornets have only been to the South State title game once before in 1981 and have never reached the state title game.
While all involved know what's on the line Friday at Poplarville, Beech doesn't bring it up much.
“We don't talk about making history a whole lot around here,” he said. “People do it in the media, but we're just trying to play together one more week. We don't want it to end.”
Poplarville (11-1) dominated Mendenhall 60-12 on the road last week and Picayune (12-1) is coming off a dramatic 40-38 win over Wayne County.
Laurel (12-1) is in the 5A South State title game for the fourth consecutive season. It was Laurel who Picayune beat in the South State championship before winning the 2013 state title.
The Tornadoes are led by dual-threat senior quarterback Tyquan Ulmer, who has thrown for 2,925 yards, 37 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He is also the team's leading rusher with 133 carries for 870 yards and five scores.
“Their quarterback is a very good player,” Lee said. “They have a couple of go-to receivers and the defense runs to the ball.”
Picayune senior running back Josh Littles continues to battle through an ankle injury, but he had another productive night against the Wayne County with 25 carries for 186 yards and a touchdown.
“He played one-legged, but we still got 186 out of him,” Lee said.
Poplarville will again rely on what has been one of the state's most efficient rushing attacks against Florence (12-2). Senior fullback Jesse Pernell has 169 carries for 1,485 yards and 25 touchdowns. Junior tailback Austin Bolton has 163 rushes for 1,477 yards and 18 scores.
“They fit our offense just perfect,” Beech said. “Pernell is our fullback and he slams the middle for tough yards. Bolton hits the edges, has good vision and good speed. It's a good mix.”
Poplarville has also been tough on defense, creating five turnovers last week by Mendenhall. One of the Hornets who came up with a turnover last week is senior defensive back Aritaeus Johnson with his ninth interception of the season.
“(The defense) has a lot of experience,” Beech said. “It's senior heavy. They've learned from a lot of mistakes made. Those seniors have seen it all.”
Poplarville will have to contend with a stout Florence defense and an offense that has put up impressive numbers on the ground.
Sophomore running back Degerrick Lee has run 275 times for 2,149 yards and 22 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Brad Dennis is just as much a threat to run it as he is to throw it. He has passed for 1,597 yards and 11 touchdowns while running 203 times for 1,497 yards and 20 touchdowns.
“They have a really good offensive line,” Beech said. “They just get first downs. It seems like nobody can ever get them off the field. They'll hold the ball for 8 or 9 minutes on a drive. They put a lot of pressure on your offense to score to keep up because they're going to eat up a lot of clock.”
4A South State: Florence at Poplarville, 7 p.m. on Friday (Radio: WRJW.com)
5A South State: Laurel at Picayune, 7 p.m. on Friday (Radio: 1320 AM)