The East Central High School football team is the hottest ticket in this northeast corner of Jackson County.
When tickets went on sale Tuesday morning for the Class 4A state title game at the school, over 300 were sold in the first 20 minutes and 500 were gone after a couple of hours.
If you want your own tickets, you can pick them up for $14 each at the East Central High School office or at the gate in Oxford on Saturday.
Chances are the Hornets’ allotment of more than 1,500 will be long gone before the team heads north for Saturday’s 3 p.m. state title game against Noxubee County at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
East Central athletic director Gary Long has worked at the school for the last 25 years and his first year at the school happened to coincide with the last time that the Hurley community was head over heals for a football team.
Dodd Lee was the head coach at East Central in 1993 and the team started the year 10-0 before falling 36-28 to Columbia in the first round of the playoffs.
“There was a lot of passion and a lot of excitement in the community,” Long said, recalling the 1993 squad. “I think the community has seen us making a turn for the better, getting better. I think it’s been just a been a long time coming.”
The Hornets are 13-0 after taking down Poplarville in an exciting 52-45 South State title contest last week.
After about 2,500 East Central fans made the trek to Poplarville last week, Long and company are expecting another large contingent to make their way to Oxford on Saturday.
“Thank you to our community, thank you to our fans for their support,” East Central head coach Seth Smith said Tuesday. “Friday night was a memory that we’ll take with us the rest of our life. They were as much a part of that win as our kids were.”
Smith, his staff and many of the players are self-professed “country boys” who have turned hard work, toughness and impressive athletic ability into a season that won’t be soon forgotten in Hurley, Big Point, Wade or any of the other small communities that send their kids to East Central.
The head coach hopes that the fans understand that the team is a product of those communities.
“Our kids work really hard and as coaches we put a lot into pushing them,” Smith said. “It’s important our fans know that our kids are reflective of their community. This community is full of great people who are tough, hard-working and effort-driven who earn everything they get in life. Hopefully they love watching our kids play because the team is reflective of who they are in their life.”
The players have been congratulated all season as they walk the halls at school or while they’re out and around town. Smith and many of his players, including senior running back Tony Brown, have seen their celebrity grow exponentially as the wins have piled up.
With the spotlight growing in recent weeks, the Hornets have done their best to soak it all in.
“Man, it’s exciting,” senior safety Andrew Seward said. “Everybody is excited. We’re going to Oxford Saturday with the whole community, school, everybody behind us. The coaches and players are excited. It’s a great time in our life this week.”
As for avoiding overconfidence, all East Central has to do is look at the film of Noxubee County to understand that there’s a big challenge ahead on Saturday.
The Hornets have managed avoid getting too cocky so far.
“The coaches help out a lot and the seniors help out,” Seward said. “We try to stay humble. Everybody has been patting us on the back, feeding us and cheering us on. We try to stay humble.”
State title schedule
Location: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford
11 a.m. — Simmons vs. Nanih Waiya (Class 1A)
3 p.m. — Winona vs. Taylorsville (Class 2A)
7 p.m. — Starkville vs. Pearl (Class 6A)
11 a.m. — Yazoo County vs. Jefferson Davis County
3 p.m. — Noxubee County vs. East Central
7 p.m. — West Point vs. Hattiesburg