Had Thanksgiving not been Thursday, some fans estimated Poplarville’s football field may have housed pop-up tents in anticipation of Friday night’s MHSAA Class 4A South State title game between the host Hornets and East Central, dubbed the “Hornet Bowl.”
Even with the holiday, fans started showing up as early as 10:30 a.m. for the 7 p.m. kickoff.
“We just wanted to make sure we got good seats to see our guys play,” said Lisa Osborne, grandparent of ECHS sophomore Fisher Davis. “They feed off of this behind us. They hear us.”
Osborne pointed to the lengthy crowed of maroon Hornets who had started to fill in behind them a couple hours after their arrival. Four hours before kickoff, the walkway to the visitor’s ticket box was packed – already standing room only in anticipation for the night’s showdown.
As the visiting Hornets arrived for walk-through, the early fans clanged cowbells and waved cutouts of the players faces. High schoolers being high schoolers, most kept a serious face but even they couldn’t help but crack a few smiles in front of the rowdy crowd.
“They’re so serious. They’re all in the zone with their headphones in,” said Brittney Brooks, sister of Cody Burroughs.
Kody Humphrey’s mother, Kesha Howell, frantically waved her sign as No. 7 walked past. They arrived by 1 p.m. to ensure a spot.
“It’s the biggest game of their history. We may never see this again – we hope to, but you never know,” Howell said. “My son is graduating so this is it. If they don’t make it tonight, this is their last game. I told him I’m not ready to quit. I want to keep going and they do, too.”
The hours in anticipation provided plenty of time for the fans to bond.
“We’re from a little town,” Howell said. “This is family – every one of us.”
Across the field, Cory Knight’s parents, Josh and Deedra, arrived just after 2 p.m. Three hours later, the line to get into the stadium wrapped around the new tailgating plot and through the 4A school’s campus.
“We have a crowd every game, home or away. We always have more than the home team when we’re away, but I think it’s going to be crazy tonight,” Deedra said, peeking at the visitor’s fans through the chain-link fence.
Poplarville native and athletic director Jonathan Ray has been at the school for 19 years. This marks his fifth as AD. He said he’s never seen anticipation quite like that of Friday night’s game.
“These last two South State games have been the biggest things. This is twice as big – if not more – than last year,” Ray said. “With this matchup, it’s going to be crazy.”
Poplarville’s home and road bleachers combine for about 2,700 seats. The Hornets actually added 300 seats to the visitor’s side before the season opener and then another 250 beyond one of the end zones for the band prior to the start of the playoffs in anticipation for the more than capacity crowd.
“One thing is our fans have always traveled well. They have always attended – even the bad years they were here supporting,” Ray said. “There’s always been that core, and then of course when you win you can build onto that.”
Prior to the playoffs, the home Hornets dressed up the field with a “Large P” logo at midfeld, hornet logos on the 25s and then green-and-white checkerboard end zones.
“We have the hardest working coaches in the state,” Ray said. “They have the mindset: We want it to be nice, we want to impress and we want it to be big for the kids. We just work and get it done.”
Even as kickoff rapidly approached – with the bleachers already bursting at the rivets – fans continued to pour in, with no end in sight.
“We won’t be turning anyone away,” Ray said, zipping off in his golf cart to put out the next pregame fire.