Fans will pack the bleachers Friday at Brother Philip Memorial Athletic Complex in Bay St. Louis with hopes of seeing the most exciting playoff game of the week.
If recent history is any indication, they won't leave disappointed.
Sun Herald No. 1 Poplarville (11-0) will travel to take on St. Stanislaus (6-5) Friday night in a game that's been one of South Mississippi's most interesting Class 4A football rivalries in recent years.
“It'll be standing room only on our side. I can guarantee that,” Poplarville coach Jay Beech said.
St. Stanislaus won South State in 2014 and 2015 before Poplarville ended the Rockachaws' run with a trip to the state title game last year.
Seventy-three miles away in Hurley, East Central (10-0) will look to keep its state title hopes alive against West Lauderdale (8-4).
No longer in the same region, St. Stanislaus and Poplarville were expected to collide last year in the playoffs before Mendenhall stunned SSC 30-22 in the second round. With SSC eliminated, Poplarville rolled to a 4A South State title.
The two teams last played in 2015 with St. Stanislaus topping Poplarville 33-21 in the second round of the playoffs. The four prior contests between the two programs were extremely tight. One of the wildest games that anyone can recall in South Mississippi came in 2012 when Poplarville rallied from a 60-49 deficit at halftime to beat St. Stanislaus 82-80.
Beech was the offensive coordinator for that Poplarville team in 2012 before he was elevated to head coach in 2014. His potent Wing-T offense will again present a challenge for the Rockachaws on Friday.
“They run the Wing-T and they run it to perfection with good athletes,” St. Stanislaus coach Jeff Jordan said. “We see a lot of Wing-T in the South. It's a popular high school offense, but you'll be hard pressed to find a program that runs it any better.”
The Poplarville offense isn't quite at full strength with senior running back Austin Bolton playing through an injury. He ran 10 times for 66 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 42-27 win over Northeast Lauderdale.
“He's not 100 percent, but he's going to play and tough it out,” Beech said. “I think he's getting a little bit better. He's good enough to play.”
Poplarville will be helped by the return of sophomore Chase Shears, who is Bolton’s main backup.
St. Stanislaus is coming off a 35-7 win over McComb on the road last week, helping erase the memory of a 30-7 loss to Pass Christian in the regular season finale.
“We got outplayed and outcoached against Pass,” Jordan said. “We had to eat a big piece of humble pie. We took them lightly and they beat us.
“Our kids are resilient. We got physical in practice again, spent more time preparing physically and mentally. We played really well against McComb.”
The winner of Poplarville-SSC will play the winner of Purvis-Florence in the next round.
West Lauderdale-East Central
In West Lauderdale, East Central will play its toughest opponent since beating St. Stanislaus 41-7 on Oct. 13. The Trojans, who finished as the No. 2 seed in Region 4-5A, have won eight of their last nine games.
East Central has yet to be truly tested by a Class 4A opponent this season its closest outcome against a 4A team coming against SSC.
East Central coach Seth Smith is confident his team is taking nothing for granted.
“I wouldn't say everything has come easy. Hopefully, that's a product of the kids working hard,” he said. “In order to sustain this success you have to keep working hard because that's what got us to this point. These kids are mature enough that they understand they've got to keep doing what got them here and that's working hard.”
East Central will face one of the better quarterbacks it has seen this season in West Lauderdale senior Turbo McKee. He has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,598 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He is also the teams' second leading rusher with 560 yards and eight scores.
It's doubtful that Turbo has faced a defense as physical as the one he will play Friday night.
While most expected East Central to be a title contender this season thanks to a potent offense, the defense may very well be Class 4A's best. The Hornets haven't given up more than 13 points in a game and have allowed only 81 points all season.
One big reason for East Central's improvement on defense this season has been the play of junior Avery White, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound linebacker who plays from sideline to sideline.
White leads the Hornets with 142 tackles this season.
“I guess the biggest thing is his athletic ability,” Smith said. “He's tall and rangy, almost 6-4 and 190 pounds, but he runs a 4.5 (40-yard dash). It's rare you have that kind of size and speed put together. With that combination, I think that's the biggest reason that when people watch him play they leave impressed. He's a special player.”
The West Lauderdale-East Central winner will play the winner of Greene County-South Pike in the next round.
Class 4A playoffs
7 p.m., Friday — Poplarville at St. Stanislaus
7 p.m., Friday — West Lauderdale at East Central