A parting of ways between two of South Mississippi’s biggest programs has paved the way for a new tradition.
Friday will mark the debut of the Port City Bowl, which is a joint effort between Gulfport and Harrison County.
Gulfport’s Milner Stadium will host Friday’s doubleheader, with Harrison Central and the newly formed Jefferson Davis County playing at 5:30 p.m. The host Admirals will then play former Region 4-6A rival George County at 8:15 p.m.
“I’m excited to be in the inaugural bowl,” GHS coach Eddie Pierce said. “I think it will be good for Gulfport.”
GCHS will make the trek from Lucedale, but coach Matt Caldwell doesn’t seem to mind. Both Rebel fans and supporters of Bassfield — which merged with Prentiss to form JDCHS — have a reputation of traveling well when it comes to football.
“I think it’s a good thing for high school football,” Caldwell said. “I think it makes it a big event to start the year. It’s four good teams and I think it’ll be exciting for the fans.”
The doubleheader will move to HCHS in 2018.
Jefferson Davis County-Harrison Central
Friday’s opener pits Class 6A HCHS against 3A JDCHS, but Red Rebel coach Casey Cain knows better than to overlook the visiting Jaguars.
Bassfield was a powerhouse in Mississippi prior to the consolidation, winning five Class 2A titles under Jags coach Lance Mancuso.
“They definitely will be the fastest team we’ll see all year and probably the most athletic,” Cain said. “They’re long and athletic on defense. They do a lot of multiple things on offense. Everything they do, they try to put the ball in one of their speedsters hands. We have to do a good job to eliminate the big play.”
With a handful of new starters on both sides of the ball, Cain would have liked to play a jamboree last week, but the Red Rebels were rained out.
“That half kind of lets you know how your kids will react blocking and tackling another opponent,” Cain said. “I think they have a slight advantage with (having played a jamboree). Usually from Game 1 to Game 2 you know who you can count on the next week, but I think we’ll still hit the ground running.”
Harrison Central will once again benefit from running behind one of the larger offensive lines, led by nationally-ranked center Bryce Ramsey.
Running back Keon Moore is also back, fresh off of big junior season where he rushed for 1,775 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Like a lot of Coast teams this year, the big question mark around HCHS involves breaking in a new quarterback. With Tavis Williams challenging for playing time at Jackson State, Harrison Central has moved Chase Jones from tight end to quarterback.
“I think he’s going to do well. You can’t put too much on his plate too early,” Cain said. “The bottom line is, I told him this is a game, but it’s non-region. We want to win, but we also want to get better each week and play our best football when the district schedule comes around.”
There will be plenty of flexing at Milner Stadium on Friday night as both GCHS and GHS are officially debuting their new flexbone offenses. The new schemes only add to the intrigue around Friday’s nightcap.
“I think both of us will kind of be in a unique situation of ironing out offensive kinks early,” said Caldwell, whose Rebels played a half in Sumrall’s jamboree last Friday; Gulfport’s jamboree was canceled due to heavy rain.
The changes were necessitated in large part because of heavy turnover on offense. In last year’s region clash, a 36-14 GCHS win, quarterbacks LaRaymond Spivery and Cleveland Ford combined for 506 yards and three touchdowns passing, with Spivery adding another 145 yards and two scores rushing.
“I think it fits our personnel that we have now,” Caldwell said. “Our kids are putting in the work. We saw some improvement on the (jamboree) film.”
Gulfport didn’t get the benefit of a jamboree, but Pierce is optimistic after monitoring the offense in practice.
“The offense is beginning to come together,” Pierce said. “Going against our (defensive) front every day, we’ve had to get better. I think we have progressed every day. I’m looking forward to getting out there and play.”
With the offensive transition, Gulfport will likely lean heavily on its defense — which isn’t exactly a bad thing when you consider the Admirals return four three-year starters in Jeremiah Braziel, Ginarious Johnson, Raynard Willis and Karlos Dillard. GHS also returns its top three tacklers from 2016 in Dillard, Johnson and Lasavon Mangum.
“I’m looking from big things from those guys,” Pierce said.
Capitalizing on opportunities will be of the utmost importance Friday.
“The No. 1 key is we cannot give them the football. We can’t turn the ball over,” Caldwell said. “With both teams running this offense you’re going to be limited in possessions because the clock will run and there won’t be a lot of incompletions because there aren’t going to be a lot of passes.
“You have to take advantage of your possessions.”
Port City Classic
At Milner Stadium, Gulfport
5:30 p.m. — Harrison Central vs. Jefferson Davis County
8:15 p.m. — Gulfport vs. George County