East Central outlasts West Lauderdale to advance to 4A South State finals
If you’re expecting a shootout in Hornet Bowl II, you’ll likely be disappointed.
A year ago, Poplarville and East Central were both putting up ridiculous numbers on offense headed into the Class 4A South State title game.
This year, it’s Poplarville piling up the touchdowns while East Central is riding a dominant defense.
After East Central won a 52-45 barn-burner in Poplarville in 2017, this year’s game moves to Hurley in a contest that likely won’t have near as much scoring thanks to both squads featuring stout defenses.
East Central’s defense has smothered opponents all season and the first-string unit has only given up one score all postseason — an early touchdown by Greene County in a 17-7 win.
The leader of the ECHS defense is senior linebacker Avery White and Poplarville head coach Jay Beech knows his offense will have to find a way to handle him.
“He’s really disruptive,” Beech said. “It doesn’t seem like anybody wants to block him. He plays with relentless effort. He’s fast and physical. We’ll definitely have to find a way to put a hat on him.”
While Poplarville (12-1) will look to keep the ball rolling against a dominant defense, East Central (12-0) will have to find a way to slow down PHS running back Chase Shears. The junior ran 10 times for 343 yards and five touchdowns last week in a 49-28 victory over South Pike. Shears is averaging an incredible 18.7 yards a carry for 1,066 yards and 17 touchdowns despite missing four games due to injury.
“On film, he looks as good as (former Poplarville RB Austin Bolton),” East Central coach Seth Smith said. “He’s a strong looking kid with great speed. He clearly makes them a better football team.”
The key for East Central is to find a way to break some big gainers on offense. Smith will need steady production out of multiple players in the ground game, including junior quarterback Will Young, junior running back Dylan Grinsteinner and senior running back Cameron Gray.
If Smith has any tricks left in his bag, we’ll probably see them Friday night.
Beech will be sitting at the Thanksgiving table on Thursday thinking about how best to handle the plan concocted by Smith, who is a long-time friend.
“It’s all I can think about,” Beech said. “It’s hard to get a conversation out of me (on Thanksgiving). I’m in outer space. I’m just imagining a play or a block or whatever.”
East Central has had a tougher trip through the postseason to get to this point. West Lauderdale (12-2) and Greene County (9-4) both provided stiff competition in the second and third rounds.
Poplarville throttled Lanier 50-20 and then cruised past Northeast Lauderdale, which was a No. 3 seed in Region 5-4A, and beat a talented South Pike team (11-3) that was playing without its star quarterback.
Tickets will go on sale at East Central at 9 a.m. on Friday at the north ticket booth. Tickets can also be purchased at gofan.co.
With East Central moving up to Class 5A next year, it’s unclear when the two teams may cross paths again.
Smith said this week that he likes the idea of the two programs meeting again at some point.
“It’s something to try to do down the road for sure,” he said.
My pick: Poplarville 21, East Central 14.
Here’s how I see the Class 5A South State game playing out:
Picayune 28, West Jones 24: West Jones pulled off the biggest upset of the season last week by taking down previously undefeated Hattiesburg 37-14, setting up Friday night’s battle at Picayune.
While the rest of the state considers last week’s outcome a complete stunner, Picayune head coach Dodd Lee wasn’t taken aback by West Jones’ victory.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Lee said. “They play great defense. Their quarterback (sophomore Alan Follis) is a sharp little player. They do special teams as well as anybody I’ve seen.”
The star for West Jones is senior defensive lineman Byron Young, who has verbally committed to Alabama. He is listed at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds with 101 tackles and 16.5 sacks.
Friday night’s game will be a battle of strength versus strength with Picayune’s strong offensive line going against a talented West Jones defensive front.
Lee has heaped praise on his offensive line all season.
“They have been everything we could have thought of and more,” Lee said. “They are a good group of kids. They’re smart kids who give great effort. I can’t ask for anything more. They are the bloodline of our football team, the heart and soul.”
Senior center Garrett Franklin is the leader of the group and the Maroon Tide have a pair big junior tackles — 6-foot-1, 330-pound Deonta Reed and 6-4, 260-pound Jay Mickel.
The line has paved the way for an impressive season from senior running back Jortin Raine, who has 326 carries for 2,749 yards and 18 touchdowns to lead the state in rushing.
The Maroon Tide has been tough on defense this year as well with senior defensive end/linebacker Juvonta Raymond playing a starring role. He has 82 tackles and six sacks.
“I think we went into the season with just a blank mind and no expectations,” Lee said. “We’ve grown and gotten better every week. We’ve learned from our losses and the attitude has been great.”
7 p.m., Friday
Poplarville at East Central
West Jones at Picayune