Seth Smith planted a kiss on the cheek of each one of his defensive assistants after Friday night’s game.
The East Central head coach again had reason to be thankful for the play of what has become the most dominant D in all of Class 4A.
“I’ll kiss ‘em every day,” Smith said. “They play like that, that don’t bother me a bit.”
The Hornets rallied with a pair of touchdowns in the second half to take down Greene County 17-7 on a cold, damp and windy night in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs in Hurley.
East Central will host West Lauderdale (12-1) in the third round and is in position to potentially play four consecutive home games in the playoffs prior to the Dec. 1 Class 4A state title game in Hattiesburg.
West Lauderdale topped Florence 42-14 on Friday night to advance.
If East Central (11-0) gets past West Lauderdale, it will play the winner of South Pike-Poplarville. If Poplarville and East Central win out, there will be another Hornet Bowl battle in the Class 4A South State title game and it will take place in Hurley.
While East Central has an attractive situation going forward in the playoffs, the Hornets had to scratch and claw just to get out of the second round against Greene County.
East Central didn’t take the lead until senior running back Cameron Gray finally broke through the line for a 38-yard touchdown run with 36 seconds remaining in the third quarter, giving the Hornets a 10-7 advantage.
“The O-line did a great job and our 600-pound squat quarterback (Will Young) led the way and blocked two guys,” he said.
For Gray, Friday’s game proved to be a breakout performance after he missed five games early in the season with a broken fibula. He finished with a season high of 141 yards on 22 carries.
“It’s a joy because he’s a phenomenal kid,” Smith said of watching his senior put together a big game. “Anytime you see a kid like that come back from injury and have a game like this, I’m just happy for him and happy for the team.”
It took about six weeks of physical therapy for Gray to get back and he described himself as “100 percent” healthy Friday night.
If East Central is to earn its second consecutive Class 4A South State title, it will be up to Gray and junior running back Dylan Grinsteinner to provide big yardage on the ground. Gray was expected to provide the home run threat after the graduation of the 2017 Sun Herald Player of the Year, Tony Brown, and he showed glimpses of that big-play threat Friday night.
“I’m just trying to stretch it out and get better every game,” Gray said.
The East Central defense allowed Greene County to move the ball early on, including a four-play, 41-yard drive that ended in a 4-yard touchdown run by Santez Campbell to make it 7-0 with 4:26 left in the first quarter.
The scoring play was set up by a 30-yard completion on a screen play from junior quarterback Jacob Mitchell to Campbell.
East Central junior linebacker Zach Jones admitted that he was the Hornet who had the blown coverage on the play, allowing Campbell to pick up big yardage.
“Every time anybody scores on us we take it personal,” Jones said. “That fires us up to play.”
Greene County went back to the screen play several times in the game and Jones was ready for it in the fourth quarter when he leaped high to intercept a pass from a scrambling Campbell.
“I read the screen play. I saw it coming,” Jones said. “I saw his eyes and I jumped up. I was happy to be there at the right time.”
Senior linebacker Avery White led the East Central defense with 17 tackles and Jones had 11, including three for negative yardage.
Not long after the Jones interception, Grinsteinner finally broke through the Greene County line for a 40-yard touchdown to give East Central a 17-7 lead with 5:34 remaining.
Grinsteinner finished with 16 carries for 87 yards.
“You have to give (Greene County) a ton of credit,” Smith said. “My goodness, (Greene County coach Michael King) and his staff had a great game plan. They’ve got some really good players, too. Our kids just fought tonight. I thought it was an example of who we are as a team and as a community. They’re just tough, hard-working kids that fight their guts out.”
Campbell completed 14 of 33 passes for 143 yards for Greene County.
The Wildcats’ season comes to a close with a record of 9-4 in King’s second year as head coach.
“We depended so much on the passing game, almost to our detriment a little bit ,” King said. “Later in the year, sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. They play some really tight man-to-man coveage and that’s what they do. You’ve got to earn every inch against those guys. They don’t give you anything and they’re really good at what they do.”