High School Sports

East Central football quiets the doubters by ‘living with belief’

East Central players celebrate after linebacker Avery White, left, returned a fumble for a touchdown during the first quarter of their 4A South State championship game at Poplarville on Friday.
East Central players celebrate after linebacker Avery White, left, returned a fumble for a touchdown during the first quarter of their 4A South State championship game at Poplarville on Friday. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

East Central head coach Seth Smith is never one to hide his emotions and Friday night’s 52-45 win over Poplarville for the Class 4A South State title proved no different.

While he’s been known to shed a tear or two, the reaction from Smith Friday night was unbridled joy.

The East Central players doused Smith with Powerade at the end of the game and the head coach let out a crazed laugh that could be best described as that of a man who had just pulled off the perfect bank heist.

When you consider the state of East Central football when Smith took over in 2013, you can understand why Smith and the rest off the Hurley community are overjoyed.

In the 10 seasons prior to Smith’s arrival, East Central had a record of 29-72. The Hornets finished 1-10 during his first season on the job.

Smith praised his staff and players for overcoming the idea that championship football wasn’t a possibility at East Central — a school known more for its baseball and softball programs.

“If you live with belief you can do these things,” Smith said. “If you doubt, you’re not going to do anything and these kids believe. You’re seeing what happens.”

East Central (13-0) will play Noxubee County (10-4) in the Class 4A state title game at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.

Poplarville presented East Central its biggest challenge so far, but Noxubee County will be another tall mountain to climb. The Tigers have four Class 4A state championships since 2008.

Finding a way

East Central has found ways to win games all season on offense and defense. On Friday, it was special teams that made the difference for the Hornets with senior Tony Brown playing a starring role.

Brown had two kickoff returns for touchdowns – 89 and 90 yards.

Branson Davis also booted through a crucial 19-yard field goal and converted all seven extra points.

Davis, who plays linebacker, also forced the fumble that allowed Avery White to score the game’s first touchdown on a 6-yard return.

East Central made it look easy for much of the season before Poplarville put a scare into Smith’s team Friday night.

While the defense didn’t put together its best performance of the season and senior receiver Brad Cumbest never got rolling on offense, it was Brown’s performance that was the difference between winning and losing Friday night.

Brown left the field in the first half with an injury, but returned soon after and broke off a 90-yard touchdown run. The speedy back was at his absolute fastest.

Brown finished with nearly 450 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns – three rushing, two on kickoff returns and one 64-yard reception.

Special evening

The scene in Poplarville Friday night was high school football at its best with fans from both teams beginning their tailgates around 10 that morning.

There was a long line for tickets about 3 hours before kickoff.

“The $10 you paid to get in, it was worth $100 tonight,” Smith said. “It was fun to watch.”

For those East Central seniors who joined a program mostly known for consistently putting up losing seasons, Friday night was a sweet one.

“It means the world,” senior safety Andrew Seward said. “We’ve never been in school history. It’s a great feeling.”

The East Central Hornets let loose Friday night in Poplarville, but there’s another goal to achieve this week.

Smith hugged his sobbing wife, Devin, repeatedly telling her, ‘I love you.’ Before rejoining the post-game celebration, Smith reminded her, ‘We’ve got to win one more.’”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee