Thanks to another shutdown performance by the East Central defense, Hornet Bowl II has become a reality.
East Central (12-0) held on to take down West Lauderdale 10-6 Friday night to clinch a spot in the Class 4A South State title game and set up a battle with Poplarville for the second consecutive season.
After East Central won a barn-burner 52-45 at Poplarville last year, East Central will have the luxury of hosting this year’s game in Hurley.
The mantra for East Central all season has been, “Defend the banner.” And no group on the team has carried the Class 4A South State banner better this season than the defense.
“Game (12) is no different than Game 1,” East Central coach Seth Smith. “The first game of the year, we won 6-0 (at Biloxi). This game, we won 10-6. Our defense has carried us the whole year. We’re not here without those guys. There’s no way to give them enough credit. They’ve played that way all year.”
While the East Central offense continues to grind out yardage, Poplarville put in another impressive showing in a 49-28 win over South Pike Friday night to advance.
East Central, which had a fairly low-key celebration Friday night, realizes it will be the team with a target on its back in the South State title game.
“We’re going to be just as hyped as they are,” East Central senior linebacker Avery White said.
Smith knows his team will have it’s hands full against Jay Beech’s Hornets.
“I don’t know that it’ll be 52-45, but we’ll try our hardest to get a little better on offense,” Smith said. “If our defense keeps playing like it’s playing, that gives us a chance.”
West Lauderdale senior quarterback Austin Davidson entered the game just shy of the 2,000-yard mark in passing and averaging 18.6 yards a completion.
On Friday night, he completed just five of 14 passes for 69 yards and one interception.
East Central senior cornerback Trenton Baldock had another big night on defense, ending West Lauderdale’s final drive of the first half with an interception. He also came up with a crucial field goal block with 3:30 left in the third quarter.
The only score of the game for West Lauderdale (12-2) came on a botched punt by East Central in the fourth quarter. Junior linebacker Austin Wilkinson picked up the short kick and ran it back 42 yards to cut the East Central lead to 10-6 with 4:53 remaining.
“We needed a break and got that break,” West Lauderdale coach Brock Clay said. “We just ran out of time, needed more breaks.”
The pressure was on the East Central offense to hold onto the ball on the following possession and a 15-yard run by senior wingback Ryan Evans on second down allowed the Hornets to move out from their own 12 and pick up a first down.
“It seemed like we only had one first down the whole night so that was big,” Smith said.
East Central put together a 10-play, 75-yard drive to to run out the clock.
A 49-yard run by Cameron Gray helped East Central march down the field on the game’s opening possession, eventually setting up a 12-yard touchdown run by Dylan Grinsteinner to make it 7-0 at the 9:43 mark of the first quarter.
From that point on, yards were much tougher to come by for East Central. The only other points came on a 37-yard field goal by Branson Davis in the second quarter.
“They figured out what we were doing and tried to shut it down,” Gray said. “We had to change some things, adjust.”
Gray led the Hornets for the second consecutive game with with 22 carries for 144 yards. Grinsteinner had 14 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown.
While Smith was less than pleased with the performance of his offense, he’s thrilled that his team will practice on Thanksgiving for the second straight season.
“You just keep saying, ‘Thank God,’ over and over,” Smith said. “This is why you do this, why you work.”