The Gulfport football team claimed its third consecutive Region 4-6A championship Friday night, but this year’s title came with extra meaning.
As the Admirals stood in front the school’s band for the rendition of the post-game alma mater, the band director noted, “This one’s for Zae.”
A year ago, Zae Crain celebrated atop his Gulfport teammates’ shoulders as they marked their second consecutive region championship with a win at Ocean Springs. He pumped his hands into the air as both the football players and members of the band took part in a brief, but raucous party behind the east end zone at Greyhound Stadium.
The Admirals (8-2, 6-0) again celebrated after Friday night’s 21-10 victory over Ocean Springs at Milner Stadium to clinch the region title, but the mood was more somber.
Crain, who graduated in December so he could enroll early at East Mississippi Community College, died on July 3 in an automobile crash that injured a pair of his new EMCC teammates, Jeremiah Braziel and Keon Moore.
Gulfport coach John Archie was especially close with Crain.
“We talk about Zae every week,” he said. “We know what type of player he was, what he wants for his football team and how he wanted to play. We keep him in our minds all the time.”
Crain, a defensive back, would have appreciated the showing the Admirals’ defensive unit put forth Friday night at Milner Stadium.
“We really miss him a lot,” Gulfport senior linebacker Danthony Shields said. “We just play hard and work hard every week just to play for him.”
With Gulfport senior quarterback Cade Crosby banged up with a sore hip in the second half, the Admirals’ defense closed out the game with three stops that included an interception by junior cornerback Jourdan Cooley, another pick by sophomore defensive lineman Jonah McGee on a tipped pass and a sack of Ocean Springs quarterback Blake Noblin on fourth-and-goal to finish off the Greyhounds for good.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the defense,” Archie said. “We’ve kind of got that bend but don’t break mentality and tonight they really stepped up big and came through in the end.”
One of the Admirals who played a key role in stopping Noblin and the Ocean Springs offense Friday night was Shields, who seemed to be the shadow of the Greyhounds’ senior quarterback all night.
“Their best player is No. 10,” Shields said. “That’s all I had to watch, just him.”
Noblin finished 15-of-31 passing for 125 yards. On the ground, he had 14 carries for 59 yards and one touchdown.
Much like it did last week in a 35-28 win at D’Iberville, Gulfport came out hot on offense and had to hold on in the second half for the victory.
Much of Gulfport senior quarterback Cade Crosby’s production came in the first half. Ocean Springs controlled time of possession for much of the third quarter and Crosby left the field for a couple of plays after taking a hard hit.
By the time Crosby was back on the field in the fourth quarter, the Admirals were just trying to find a way to run out the clock.
He completed nine of 13 passes for 203 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Gulfport’s hot start on offense was again complicated by a steady string of penalties.
“We’ve just got to work on finishing games, finishing quarters, finishing halves, finishing drives,” Crosby said. “We’re killing ourselves with penalties. I think over the past two games we’ve had over 25 penalties. We’ve just got to stop getting dumb penalties and killing drives ourselves.
“(The defense) came up really big. Our second half, they really shut us out. We had a lot of three-and-outs, and the (Gulfport) defense came back came up with some really big stops.”
Friday night’s win also gave the Admirals their 22nd consecutive win in region play.
Ocean Springs (5-5, 4-2) clinched a spot in the playoffs with Harrison Central’s 33-6 loss to D’Iberville