High School Sports

These Coast coaches see each other at Thanksgiving before playing for South State titles

After Thursday morning’s practice, East Central football coach Seth Smith will make his annual Thanksgiving trek to Pearl River County to celebrate the holiday with family.

First, he and his family will stop to visit the house of Maw Maw Garlan, grandmother of Seth’s wife, Devin.

Second, the family will make the short trek to visit Seth’s mother, MeMe.

At both stops, football will dominate conversation.

Maw Maw Garlan is the mother of Dodd Lee, the legendary head coach at Picayune who is preparing his team to host West Jones at 7 p.m. Friday in the Class 5A South State title game.

At MeMe’s, Seth and his family will encounter Cruz Russell, who is a receivers coach for the same Poplarville team that East Central will face for a Class 4A South State title in Hurley on Friday night.

This week’s game marks the second consecutive year that Poplarville and East Central have met at this stage in the postseason, creating a unique “Hornet Bowl” rivalry.

Prior to last year’s 52-45 win by East Central, the trash talking got started a day early at MeMe’s.

“Cruz, he gets a little mouthy,” Smith said. “I didn’t do a lot of chattering, but he talked trash to my boys. I’m sure he’ll do the same. That makes it fun. It’s just a little family trash talk from your brother-in-law.

“I tried to be the mature one. Around Cruz, you just have to have a pulse to be more mature than him.”

Smith and his wife have four boys — Tucker, Tyke, Titan and Trac. Titan, the 11-year-old, tends to join in on the smack talk.

“(Tyke) won’t be able to hold back,” Devin said. “Last year, Cruz had all his family in green. Me and Seth and our kids had on some version of maroon. It made for a real good picture.”

An ‘awkward’ Thanksgiving

At Maw Maw Garlan’s house, the banter will probably be a little lighter.

“It’ll be whatever comes up,” Lee said on Monday. “We’re just like every other family. Whatever game is on TV, we’ll watch that. I would say we’ll probably talk about football mostly. My dad coached for 19 years and I grew up around it, played it. It’s always been a part of my family.”

Lee’s Picayune squad has played a lot of meaningful football games this time of year, and Devin has watched as her dad has juggled family, the holidays and football.

“My dad doesn’t talk a lot when it gets closer to game day, but when Seth walks into the room he immediately becomes a conversationalist,” Devin said. “He talks to him more than me. He enjoys talking football.”

This isn’t the first time that the two coaches have had teams playing the day after Thanksgiving, but the first instance proved to be a strange holiday for both men.

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Seth was on the staff at Pearl River Central in 2011 when the Blue Devils faced Picayune in the Class 5A South State title game.

“Seth worked with my dad for five years and left against everyone’s will, including my own, to go to PRC,” Devin said. “Two years later, he had to play my dad for South State. That was probably the most awkward Thanksgiving ever. We probably stayed a total of 35 minutes at Maw Maw’s.

“They are both the two most competitive people I’ve known. As much as they love each other, they share grandkids and me, they both want to win. In that moment, you’re really just thinking about the opponent and they forget who they are for a split second. It’s hard to move past that. Nobody was obviously ugly or anything. There was a level of tension there that can’t be avoided.

The next day, the Maroon Tide rolled to a 45-10 victory on their way to the first of Lee’s two state championships at Picayune. The second came in 2013.

Hoping for Hattiesburg

Whoever advances out of the Class 4A and Class 5A South State title games on Friday will play at Roberts Stadium Hattiesburg on Dec. 1 in the state championship round. The 4A game is set for an 11 a.m. kickoff and the 5A contest will be the final game of the day at 7 p.m.

If both Picayune (10-3) and East Central (12-0) survive Friday night, that will be a special moment for all involved.

“That would be beyond my wildest imagination,” Lee said. “I’d love to walk into that stadium and (East Central) have the lead. I know there would be a lot of maroon in the stands.”

Regardless of the outcome in Hurley Friday night, Seth will be checking to see how his father-in-law’s team fares immediately after the game. If they both win, that’s certain to get a reaction out of the sixth-year head coach.

“Oh my God, it would be emotional,” Seth said. “We have to play phenomenal for that to happen, but we’d be blessed to have it happen. He’s my father-in-law and he’s a mentor. He’s who I learned this game from. It would be extremely gratifying. I’ve known him my whole life. I love the man.”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @CoastCoverage.