No high school football program in South Mississippi has won more games over the last three years than Poplarville, and it’s hard to see the Hornets slowing down in 2019.
After ending up the 2018 season as the last Coast team standing, Poplarville is the Sun Herald’s preseason No. 1 for the second consecutive season.
Poplarville, which opens the season on Aug. 23 with a home game against Laurel, has a record of 38-5 and a pair of Class 4A South State titles over the last three years under head coach Jay Beech.
With so many key pieces returning from last year’s squad that finished 13-2 and claimed a South State championship, the Hornets may again be South Mississippi’s best hope for a state title run.
That’s why the Hornets stand atop the Sun Herald’s Preseason Top 5 poll:
No. 1 Poplarville
2018 record: 13-2.
There weren’t many better big-play running backs in the state last year than Poplarville running back Chase Shears, who is back for his senior year. He battled through injuries at the midway point of the 2018 season to run 75 times for 1,316 yards and 19 touchdowns. That’s an average of 17.5 yards per rush and an average one touchdown for every four carries.
While Shears will cause concern for opposing defenses, Beech will again put pressure on defenses with his Wing-T scheme and put the ball in the hands of multiple players.
Shears is the marquee name for what should be a prolific offense, but Poplarville has some of its top players back from a defense that held opponents to 14 points or less in nine games last season. Senior defensive tackle Chandler Norris and senior defensive end Devin Hart joined Shears as the team’s Preseason All-South Mississippi selections.
With no East Central in the mix in Class 4A this season, Poplarville’s path to another 4A South State title may be a little smoother.
No. 2 Gulfport
2018 record: 10-2.
As the two-time defending Region 4-6A champion, Gulfport checks in as the first Class 6A program.
It will be difficult to replace players like quarterback T.Q. Newsome, who is now at Southern Miss, and linebacker Derick Hall, who is now a member of the Auburn football team. But the Admirals are not lacking in talent at the skill positions on offense and they always find a way to put together a stout defense.
There should be an interesting QB battle leading up to the season opener with a Long Beach transfer, senior Cade Crosby, and last year’s backup, senior Dawson Malley, hoping to be the starter for the season opener. Whoever is at QB will have senior running back Tyran Gable, senior receiver Tommie Johnson and senior receiver Deshun Shields to get the ball to.
No. 3 Picayune
2018 record: 11-4.
Dodd Lee is back for his 24th season as the head coach at Picayune and you can expect the Maroon Tide to again be a contender in Class 5A. Lee is 209-70 during his time as the Picayune head coach and 251-101 overall.
Picayune may have the best offensive line on the Coast with a pair of seniors with Division I scholarship offers - Deonta Reed and Timothy Mickle. It remains to be seen who will carry the load in the ground, but senior running back Cameron Thomas has the early edge to be the starting running back to begin the season.
On defense, senior defensive end Eljiah Jenkins should make an impact after coming up with 56 tackles and five sacks a year ago.
No. 4 Biloxi
2018 record: 4-7.
The Indians may feature as much individual talent as any squad on the Coast with several players picking up FBS scholarship offers in the offseason.
Junior quarterback Chad O’Neal, who battled through injuries at receiver last year, holds offers from Southern Miss and South Alabama. Senior offensive tackle Ryan Spiers picked up a Georgia Tech offer late in the summer and also holds offers from UAB, South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe.
On defense, junior defensive back Elijah Sabbatini has offers from Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. Senior defensive back Jervin Smith is being recruited by Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe.
Senior linebacker Anthony Crouse, who missed some key games in region play due to an injury, is also back to lead the way on defense after picking up 97 tackles in 2018.
Biloxi has a shot to be the breakout squad on the Coast under second-year head coach Katlan French.
No. 5 D’Iberville
2018 record: 5-5.
Larry Dolan enters his first season as the head coach at D’Iberville and he has the luxury of having one of the state’s most gifted senior athletes at quarterback in Jaden Walley.
There’s a good chance Walley will line up in a variety of roles this season, including running back, receiver and defensive back.
Jaden’s younger brother, Justin, is a junior cornerback who should be one of the better defensive players on the Coast. Also on defense, junior defensive end Gabe Bosarge should be a handful for opponents.
The Warriors would probably be higher in these rankings if not for significant turnover in the starting lineup on both sides of the ball. Also, they face a brutal non-region schedule that includes Jefferson Davis County, Picayune, Poplarville and Hammond, La.
As long as the Walley brothers are on the field, D’Iberville should prove to be a dangerous squad once the season kicks off on Aug. 23.
Five more to watch: East Central, Gautier, Harrison Central, Moss Point, St. Stanislaus.