Friday night was 15 years in the making and oh so sweet for the St. Martin Yellow Jackets.
St. Martin thumped arch rival D’Iberville 48-28 Friday night for the Yellow Jackets’ first victory over the Warriors since 2003. The win also clinched a spot in the Class 6A playoffs for St. Martin and ended what had been a promising season for D’Iberville.
“We’ve been talking about this day since eighth grade,” St. Martin senior offensive tackle Brandon Cunningham said. “We’re the first class to do it in 15 years … 15 years.”
St. Martin improved to 7-4 overall and 4-3 in Region 4-6A. As the No. 4 seed in the region, the Yellow Jackets will travel to face Brandon (11-1) in the first round of the Class 6A South State playoffs.
D’Iberville’s season ends at 5-5 and 3-4.
Friday night’s victory also marked the first time in the history of St. Martin football that the team has clinched back-to-back postseason bids.
For St. Martin head coach Eddie Wayne Whitehead, it was a satisfying finish to a season that included heart-breaking losses to Gulfport, Harrison Central and Ocean Springs. The players danced and embraced their head coach as they gathered in the end zone to celebrate the big win.
“It’s been a long, long time,” Whitehead said of finally taking down D’Iberville. “I was (at D’Iberville as an assistant) for 20 years. A lot of these kids, I coached in youth ball. It’s big being on the other side, to get a win. It’s huge for our community and huge for our team.”
As has been the case for much of the season, several St. Martin players made an impact on special teams and offense. But no Yellow Jacket was more determined than senior running back Ham McGee, who finished with 16 carries for 174 yards and two touchdowns.
McGee left the game for a moment with an injury late in the second quarter, but there was no keeping him off the field with a chance to take down D’Iberville for the first time in his career.
“I knew I was going back in,” McGee said. “There was too much on the line for me to not be in.”
The senior was part of a potent rushing attack that included 12 carries for 82 yards and three touchdowns from senior quarterback Mileon Graham. Junior running back Jay McGee, Ham’s brother, also ran seven times for 72 yards and a touchdown.
“We just ran at them and pounded it the whole game,” Ham McGee said.
St. Martin has had problems with making crucial mistakes in important situations this year and it appeared to be more of the same when Jay McGee ripped off a 40-yard run, but was stripped of the ball by Raymond Lias at the D’Iberville 1 early in the third quarter. The Warriors recovered the ball in the end zone.
However, a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown by senior Elijah Washington provided the boost the Yellow Jackets needed and pushed the Yellow Jackets’ lead to 34-14 with 9:27 left in the third quarter.
It was Washington’s eighth touchdown of the season and fourth on either a punt or kickoff return.
“He’s a perfect player,” Ham McGee said. “Every time you need him, he comes through. Every time. He can make something out of nothing.”
D’Iberville was missing its top running back in senior Marquis Whitley, who sat out with an injury. He had 808 yards and eight touchdowns this season and his absence was obvious on Friday, putting more pressure on junior quarterback Jaden Walley to lead the way.
Walley ran 26 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns. He also completed seven of 14 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns — both to his brother, Justin.
Much of Walley’s production on the ground came in the first half.
“Walley is such a great player,” Whitehead said. “He got us early on first down when they kept running the sneak. In the second half, we did a better job of containing him, kind of keeping him bottled up.”
A crucial point in the game came in the second quarter when D’iberville had back-to-back fumbles on offense that were recovered by the Yellow Jackets, allowing St. Martin to take a 27-14 lead at the half.
With a couple of significant goals reached Friday night, the next mission for St. Martin is to prove it can win in the postseason after taking a 55-14 beating at Pearl in the first round a year ago.
“I was kind of disappointed last year,” Ham McGee said. “I only ran the ball once (against Pearl) because of turf toe. This year, I don’t care who it is. We’re going to go give it to them. They’re going to know about the St. Martin Yellow Jackets.”