The Poplarville High School football team can put the program on the state-wide map Saturday in Starkville.
The Hornets (12-1) play Lafayette (12-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium in the Class 4A state title contest. If Poplarville wins, it will be the first football state championship in school history.
The Hornets have never been this far in the postseason and the community can thank third-year coach Jay Beech for getting them this far.
Beech learned the Wing-T offense while working under Eric Collins, who is now at D'Iberville, for one season at Pearl River Central.
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That brand of football is working well in Poplarville with a record of 29-9 over the last three seasons.
“I just saw the success we had at PRC with Coach Collins and the kind of athletes we had there,” Beech said. “I knew it was a system you could win with if you do it right. A lot of people don't do it right, but Collins does it right. I learned from him and expanded on it. We're trying to be the best we can be.”
Poplarville's potent Wing-T offense may give it an edge against a Lafayette team that hasn't faced that style of offense this season.
Poplarville has plenty of weapons to rely on, but it's unclear whether junior running back Austin Bolton will be available Saturday. The explosive runner suffered a high ankle sprain in last week's 42-14 win over Florence.
Beech intended to keep Bolton out of practice this week in order to get him healthy enough to play. Any contribution from Bolton would be a significant boost for the Hornets. He has 179 rushes for 1,701 yards and 21 touchdowns this year.
If Bolton is unable to go, Poplarville will rely more on senior fullback Jesse Pernell and sophomore athlete Tyson Holston.
Pernell has proven that he can carry the load with 189 carries for 1,614 yards and 26 touchdowns this season. Holston has picked up steam as a runner in the postseason.
“We do have some other talented running backs,” Beech said. “We'll have to highlight them more than we would normally.”
Poplarville and Lafayette are both on 12-game winning streaks entering Saturday's game. Poplarville has dominated its four playoff games by an average of 34.8 points and Lafayette has beaten its postseason opponents by an average of 26.5 points.
Pernell said that his teammates started talking about the potential of winning a state title during his sophomore season.
Beech said he saw that type of potential a year earlier for Pernell and his fellow seniors.
“This senior class, as freshmen, was undefeated and outscored our opponents 265-50 during the ninth grade season,” Beech said. “We knew we had some talent in that age group. It's just a bunch of tough kids who love to play football. It's not like we had a bunch of Division 1 talent. We have just have tough kids and athletic kids.”
Lafayette does have some Division I talent in senior receiver Tyler Carmichael-Williams, who has 37 receptions for 718 yards and eight touchdowns. He is a Mississippi State commit.
Lafayette senior quarterback Will Ard has completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 1,811 yards, 18 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Ard often hands the ball off to junior running back Jamarcus Quarles, who has 294 carries for 2,062 yards and 18 scores.
“They have the size. They have playmakers. They have speed. They have a good quarterback,” Beech said. “They're a well rounded team in all phases. I don't see a weakness.”
Who: Poplarville vs. Lafayette
What: 4A state title game
When: 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville
Radio: 1320 AM, WRJW.com