Last year’s Class 4A South State title game hinged on the outstanding play of the 2017 Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year, East Central running back Tony Brown.
Fast forward a year later, Poplarville junior running back Chase Shears proved himself as the next high school football star in the making for South Mississippi.
Shears scored three touchdowns on three touches in the first half to spark a 33-17 victory over East Central in the Class 4A South State title game, clinching Poplarvile’s first trip to the state championship since 2016.
East Central managed to bottle up Shears in the second half, but the damage was done.
Poplarville (13-1) will play Louisville (14-1) at 11 a.m. on Dec. 1 in the Class 4A state title game at Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. Louisville beat Greenwood 17-14 on Friday to secure their spot in the game.
After losing in the 2016 state title game to Lafayette County and falling to East Central in last year’s South State championship, Poplarville is anxious to claim its rightful place as an emerging power in Class 4A.
Poplarville coach Jay Beech believes he is taking a special bunch of Hornets to Hattiesburg.
“These kids, this senior class and just the will to win,” Beech said. “They have refused to lose. They don’t think they’re ever going to lose a game. It takes a great team to beat them.”
Shears resembled a larger version of Brown, who is now a member of the South Alabama football team.
When Shears found a gap, he was gone.
When East Central defenders tried to make arm tackles on Shears, he easily shed their attempts on the way to the end zone.
“If we get him through the line of scrimmage, he’s got a good chance,” Beech said. “He’s that kind of back.”
Shears’ first score, an 86-yard touchdown run, came on Poplarville’s second snap of the game.
“It was amazing blocks by my lineman and it was green grass all the way,” he said.
On Poplarville’s fourth play from scrimmage, Shears pulled in a 40-yard touchdown toss from senior quarterback Antonio Barnes. Shears was wide open in the middle of the field as Poplarville took advantage of a short field following an East Central punt and grabbed a 12-0 lead with 6:13 left in the first quarter.
Shears didn’t touch the ball on Poplarville’s next five snaps, which included a one-play possession that ended with an PHS fumble.
Finally, Shears was again handed the ball and he ran 77 yards off the edge for another breakaway touchdown to make it 19-7 with 6:48 left in the second quarter.
Shears finished the game with seven carries for 180 yards and two touchdowns. He also had the one catch for 40 yards and a score.
“I just leave it up to God and my lineman to block for me,” Shears said. “If it’s there, it’s there. Just make it happen.”
His performance was made all the more impressive considering the East Central defense had shut down opponents all season long.
“He’s a difference maker,” Beech said. “When you go to a state championship, you need a player like that.”
Shears, who missed four games earlier this season after suffering a bad reaction to supplements, left late in Friday’s game after suffering a cramp and having his shoulder pop out of place.
As long as he is on the field and healthy, Poplarville should have a good shot to take down Louisville. Shears has eight touchdowns on only 18 touches in the last two games and he is averaging 19.5 yards a carry this season.
While the Poplarville offense put up more than enough production, the defense stymied an East Central offensive unit that tried to get creative in the passing game.
East Central head coach Seth Smith pointed the finger at himself after the game.
“As a coach, you hold kids accountable,” he said. “When you mess up, you’ve got to look at them and be accountable as a coach. This was 100 percent on me. I outsmarted myself instead of being true to what we are. I deviated and thought we could run some things they hadn’t seen. That’s not who we are, who I am.”
After recovering a fumble at the Poplarville 21, East Central cut the lead to 12-7 on a 16-yard touchdown run by junior quarterback Will Young with 2:35 left in the first quarter.
A 44-yard field goal by Branson Davis with a little over a minute left in the first half put the halftime score at 19-10, but Poplarville marched down the field on the opening drive of the second half and Tyson Holston ran it in from 36 yards out at the 8:43 mark of the third quarter to make it 26-10.
East Central lost two fumbles in the second half as the home team’s chances faded.
Poplarville senior defensive end/tight end Devin Hart had a big game with a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He also had a 21-yard touchdown reception in the second half.
Once the time ran off the clock, it was apparent that Poplarville had beaten East Central at its own game.
“We were more physical, most definitely,” Hart said. “That was the key this week, to be more physical than them, and we did it.”