Five Coast football squads take the field Friday night with the start of playoffs in Class 4A.
St. Stanislaus (7-3) and East Central (6-4) are the only teams that have the luxury of hosting first-round games with Quitman traveling to Bay St. Louis and Northeast Jones making the trip to Hurley.
Moss Point (5-5) will go to West Lauderdale, Poplarville (6-4) will be at McComb and Vancleave (4-7) makes the trek to Mendenhall.
Of the two teams hosting first-round games, East Central appears to have the toughest test against a Northeast Jones team that is 7-3. Northeast Jones, which runs a spread offense, is led by dual-threat senior quarterback Caleb West.
East Central is looking to put its disappointing 31-28 loss to Vancleave in the regular season finale in the rear view. The Hornets turned the ball over five times in the game, including three consecutive failed quarterback-center exchanges in the first half.
"We've moved on. It's a brand new season and we're 0-0," East Central coach Seth Smith said this week. "We won't even mention that game. We'll learn from our mistakes."
If East Central is to make a run in the postseason, it will again have to rely on senior running back A.J. Davis to put up big yardage. He has rushed 367 times for 2,368 yards and 20 touchdowns this season and returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score last week.
Smith is confident that Davis won't have a problem continuing the heavy workload in the postseason.
"His toughness and mentality really," Smith said. "If he doesn't get the ball, he's upset. He wants the ball so we give it to him. The offensive line has done a great job all year. The key to this game is getting the snap."
St. Stanislaus will be a heavy favorite on its home field against a Quitman team that finished 2-9 in the regular season. The Rockachaws are riding a six-game winning streak into the playoffs.
SSC coach Bill Conides has seen a steady progression in his team after starting the season 1-3 against a difficult non-region schedule.
"I never felt like we got better as the season progressed last year. We started off a good team and finished as a good team," Conides said. "This year, you can see the difference from week to week. There's been improvement on offense and special teams and defense. We keep getting better."
SSC's hopes of repeating as 4A South State champions will again rely on the arm of junior quarterback Myles Brennan. He has thrown for 3,595 yards, 33 touchdowns and six interceptions this season.
"This is a kid who is improving on the field," Conides said. "Physically, he's getting stronger. He's also getting better at processing reads and avoiding the rush."
Vancleave rolls into the postseason with momentum despite winning just two games in its last nine outings. The Bulldogs went back to the veer offense last week and it helped them pick up the upset win over rival East Central.
"It allowed us to get downhill quicker with (running back) Dylan Mallette," Vancleave coach Lavon Capers said. "He's been back deep in this pistol this year. It allowed him to hit the hole quicker and the quarterback (Parker Bourque) became more involved in running the football. It also got (receiver/RB) Cade Posey involved with more touches. We're getting our athletes the ball more."
Vancleave will face a tough Mendenhall rushing attack led by running back Deion Dampeer. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior has run for 1,686 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
"They're big and fast," Capers said of Mendenhall (7-4). "They remind me of Moss Point with their athleticism and speed. They're going to be tough, but we've beat teams like that before."
Moss Point and Poplarville have the toughest trips to make in the first round.
Moss Point will take on a West Lauderdale team (9-2) that won 5-4A thanks to a stout defense that held opponents to 12 points or less six times this season.
Moss Point will rely on senior Travis Marion and junior Omni Wells to lead the rushing attack with senior Cal'terrius Anderson out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Marion rushed 15 times for 173 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 42-20 win over Bay High. Wells had 26 carries for 105 yards.
"We always knew Travis could run the ball," Moss Point coach Willie Brown said. "He made some spectacular runs last year. We have Omni and we'll find some other guys to share the responsibility."
Poplarville will travel to take on a McComb team (9-2) that had a 20-12 win at Harrison Central on Aug. 28.
"They have a tremendous amount of team speed," Poplarville coach Jay Beech said. "The challenge defensively will be tackling guys in space."
Poplarville has a pair of rushers who eclipsed 1,000 yards this season - sophomore Austin Bolton (1,091) and Jesse Pernell (1,110).
Beech believes his team is built to win games this time of year when it gets cold and wet.
"We have to have no turnovers on offense," Beech said. "We have a great chance if we play defense and not turn the ball over."