With championship hopes very much alive in South Mississippi, the Class 4A South State playoffs get underway Friday night.
Sun Herald No. 1 Poplarville (10-0) is looking for its second consecutive South State championship while No. 2 East Central (9-0) appears to be a significant threat to dethrone Jay Beech’s Hornets.
Poplarville, East Central and Pass Christian are all at home Friday night for first-round playoff games.
Northeast Lauderdale (6-5) is at Poplarville, East Central hosts Lanier (4-7) and Pass Christian (5-5) appears to have the toughest match-up of teams playing on their home field with Florence (7-4).
Moss Point (3-8) is on the road at Region 6-4A champion South Pike (8-3) and St. Stanislaus (5-5) makes the trek to McComb (4-6)
Pass Christian had one of its biggest wins in recent memory to close out the regular season, thumping rival St. Stanislaus 30-7 to clinch the No. 2 seed in Region 8-4A.
Pass Christian coach Casey Wittmann pointed to the play of junior running back Tionne Frost for helping lead the way to the big win. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Frost has 208 carries for 1,307 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
“With the way we run our offense, we have one true running back,” Wittmann said. “He allows for play-action calling off him.”
The Pirates’ defense has played better of late as well, allowing just 10 points a game over the last three contests.
A young Pass Christian team, which features a sophomore quarterback in Dustin Allison, is growing up at just the right time.
“We just have to stay healthy,” Wittmann said. “We have some good seniors who have picked up the slack for good leadership. We have a lot of confidence.”
Bolton banged up
Poplarville eased past Lawrence County 58-20 in the regular season finale, but did so without star running back Austin Bolton.
“He’s a little bit banged up so that’s why we rested him,” Beech said. “We wanted to make sure he’s fresh.”
Bolton has been outstanding all season for the Hornets, rushing 141 times for 1,733 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Bolton played a big part last season as Poplarville reeled off four consecutive dominant victories in the postseason. The Hornets scored an average of 49.5 points a game during the playoffs before losing 27-12 to Lafayette in the 4A state title contest.
Poplarville has averaged 42.7 points a game this season.
“Last year, we really caught fire and played well at the end of the season,” Beech said. “It kind of looks like we might be doing the same thing this year.”
Brown is fresh
East Central has been every bit as dominant as Poplarville, if not more. The tightest margin of victory for East Central this season was a 24-10 win over Biloxi in the season opener and the Hornets have beaten teams by an average of 34.9 points this year.
“We just have to block and tackle great, do what we’ve been doing,” East Central coach Seth Smith said. “The kids play hard. We’ve won the turnover battle in every game and that’s what we’ve got to have happen.”
East Central senior running back Tony Brown and his offensive line appear to be getting sharper by the week. Brown has scored 11 touchdowns over the last two weeks to bring his season total to 27.
Smith praised his offensive line, which is led by 6-foot-3, 295-pound senior Wyatt Green.
“They have progressed each week and I would say right now they’re as good as any we’ve had,” he said. “They’re not as big as they were last year, but there’s great cohesion with this group.”
What has to be scary for the rest of 4A is that Brown is at his best headed into the postseason.
“He’s fresher than he was last year,” Smith said. “Last year going into the playoffs, we had played 11 games. This year, we’ve only played nine. That’s about 60-70 carries.”
Class 4A playoffs schedule
Northeast Lauderdale at Poplarville
Lanier at East Central
Florence at Pass Christian
St. Stanislaus at McComb
McComb at South Pike
Note: All games kick off at 7 p.m.