GULFPORT -- Coach Eddie Pierce wasn't quite sure what to expect from his Admirals heading into the season. He had high hopes, but Gulfport graduated a host of playmakers from the 6-6 2014 team, including the team's quarterback, top two receivers and five out of six leading tacklers. Consensus seemed to be there was no consensus -- which probably made Friday night's Gatorade shower all the more refreshing.
As the final siren sounded at Milner Stadium, Pierce's admirals converged on him, dousing him with the big orange jug.
"That was great," Pierce said after his No. 2 Admirals knocked off No. 1 Ocean Springs 24-7 to claim the Region 4-6A title. "Any time you can get a Gatorade bath, it's great."
As the 4-6A winner, Gulfport (8-2, 6-0) will host the fourth-seed out of Region 3-6A, Meridian (5-5, 4-2). Ocean Springs (8-2, 5-1) needs to beat Harrison Central next week to secure the region's second seed. The victory marked Gulfport's first outright region title since 2012.
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Defense ended up making the difference for Gulfport on senior night as the Admirals recovered three fumbles and intercepted Ocean Springs quarterback Drew Windham twice -- the second was returned nearly 98 yards by Deon Cole for a touchdown.
By halftime, Ocean Springs, the reigning region champs, had accumulated just 37 yards on the ground and finished the game with 133 total yards of offense. Normally reliable, Windham failed to complete any of his six passes.
"If you're Ocean Springs with what we try to do to stay in ball games with the way we try to win, turnovers, we can't have that," Greyhounds coach Ryan Ross said.
Cole's pick-six on the first play of the third quarter ended up being the final dagger, Ross said. At the time, Ocean Springs' Aaron Stovall picked off Gulfport's Cleveland Ford at the Admirals' 35 with the visitors trailing 15-7. After a 19-yard run by Trexton Coleman, who finished with a team-high 105 yards on 17 carries, Windham rolled to his right on a play action bootleg and looked like he had a receiver open in the middle of the end zone. The ball was under-thrown, however, and Cole returned it down the home sideline for his second pick-six in as many weeks.
"It was a play-action bootleg that we were planning to run in, but Drew was just trying to make a play," Ross said. "It was a 14-point swing right there when we're trying to claw our way back into the game. I thought the key moment of the game was when Deon picked that ball off as we're going in. We were down here close with a possibility to punch it in and tie it up.
"That 14-point swing knocked us down."
Gulfport's leading scorer Friday ended up being sophomore Cain Suddith, a late addition to the Admirals' roster this season. With only a single 38-yard field goal on the back of his football card heading into the game, Suddith booted field goals of 20, 43 and two 36-yard kicks.
"Here's a guy who had never played a game of football in his life until (St.) Stanislaus," Pierce said. "Just a pleasant surprise. He's a kid who came in off of the soccer field. He came in about a week after we started practicing and just started kicking, so I said, 'OK, you're the guy."
Ocean Springs' touchdown came on a Windham 1-yard keeper with 1:30 remaining in the third quarter.
Gulfport's Larozzo Shugart scored the game's first touchdown at the 5:44 mark of the second quarter on a 5-yard run to put the Admirals ahead 9-0.
Cole ended up with a game-high 170 yards on 24 carries. He also converted a 32-yard pass as the upback on a fake punt to help set up Suddith's first 36-yard field goal.
"You can put Deon anywhere on the field and he's going to play well for you," Pierce said. "He's just that type of kid. Alton Conerly, Ty Powell, they all played both ways. All these kids, whatever you ask them to do, they do. That's a tribute to them. I'm very proud of them."
Conerly helped keep Ocean Springs' passing attack grounded, intercepting Windham in the end zone early in the third quarter.
Gulfport will close out the regular season Friday at Biloxi.