By Austin Bishop
The Winston County Journal
French Camp Academy head coach Nathan Wright certainly sees his glass as half full, but he certainly thought it may have sprung a leak after his Panthers suffered a stunning 50-21 loss to Pelahatchie in the ninth game of the season.
“Really, the Pelahatchie game was the low,” Wright said. “When that happened we looked to the sideline and we had a walking infirmary over there. We had guys hobbling around in casts and I thought ‘Lord if we don’t get somebody a little bit better we are pretty much done.’”
What happened following that game may not be a miracle, but it certainly is amazing. The Panthers reeled off six consecutive victories and now move into Friday’s MHSAA Class 1A State Championship Game against Smithville with a chance to win the school’s first state title in football.
“I figured the rest of the season we would be fighting for pride, just trying to win for the fun of it and enjoy the rest of the year” FCA quarterback Jesse Hosket said while reflecting on the loss to Pelahatchie. “I wasn’t expecting it to turn out the way it did. It was a crazy turnaround. If we are able to come back and finish it, it could be a storybook ending.”
Perhaps, but at times the 2013 season resembled a horror story and at other times a mystery, with just a little bit of improbable fiction tossed in.
The Panthers opened the 2013 season full of optimism, following a dramatic 20-17 loss to Stringer in the 2012 Championship Game.
Although the Panthers lost to Choctaw County (21-16), Eupora (51-21), Kemper County (26-24) and region foe Noxapater (20-13) to open the season, Wright was still optimistic at that point.
“We knew the caliber of the teams we were playing and they weren’t bad,” he said. “We were really down when Eupora beat us. We thought we had a chance to win that game and just got pounded. In the Kemper County game we thought we were the better team but they just jumped up and caught a couple of passes over us.
“Even at 0-4 we knew we had a lot of potential,” he said. “We knew we still had Michael (Erving) on the sideline and we knew we had a lot of growing to do.”
The loss to Noxapater began a string of injuries that haunted the Panthers for more than a month.
“We had less than 100 yards of offense and Jesse got injured at the beginning of the game and played the whole time bleeding with a gash in his hand.”
“It was a tough loss,” said FCA defensive lineman Cortez Johnson. “it got injured in the third quarter. It was a pretty sad night.”
“Three out of the four we had lost were really close,” Hosket said. “We knew we could be a great team if would reach our potential. We just kept fighting through and stuck with it an were able to one out on top.”
After the loss to Noxapater, the hobbled up Panthers managed to put together a modest winning streak by defeating the likes of West Lowndes, West Oktibbeha, East Oktibbeha and Starkville Academy, setting up the battle with Pelahatchie for one of the top spots in the region.
“I think we went over there and thought we were going to beat them, run over them,” Johnson said. “It was a whole different story when we got there and we paid for that (at the game) and we paid for it in practice too.”
But then, things began to change.
Beginning with a 36-0 win over Ethel the following week, the Panthers began to get their players healthy — including Erving who missed the first half of the season with a wrist injury — and for the first time they began putting the team on the field they had hoped to begin the season with.
After evening their season record at 5-5 the Panthers played host to a very hot Nanih Waiya team on Nov. 1 that was fresh off a 20-14 overtime win over region-leading Noxapater
“I think that game was the key,” Wright said. “We had gone to Ethel the week before and made a few changes and we pitched a shutout. Nanih Waiya was playing to be the No. 1 team in our district and it was senior night for us. We told the kids that all year we had been waiting for a Friday night to see the team we were expecting to see play all year and tonight it was on the seniors.”
The result was a 54-6 win that breathed life into FCA’s season and set them on an amazing path to Friday’s 11 a.m. title game at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson.
“That was a really complete game,” Hosket said. “That was a turning point I believe. We started to reach our potential to play like we could.”
The next week the Panthers took a 49-8 win over Sebastopol in the last regular-season game of the season that FCA had to win in order to make the playoffs.
From there French Camp has been on a tremendous roll, taking wins over Bogue Chitto (37-34), Lumberton (30-20) and Stringer (56-35) in the South State playoffs.
“We probably had the toughest road of anybody (in the playoffs),” Hosket said. “Away to Bogue Chitto, home with Lumberton and away to Stringer. It’s been a great ride. Now I’m just ready to finish it (with a win).”
While the season has been one of woes and trials, in the end Wright said the journey has been one that has strengthened his Panthers, both as a team and individuals.
“It makes it a lot sweeter,” Wright said. “If you can get anything out of football, that’s what you want to get. You want to see guys go through the ups and downs and still be able to persevere. The kids could have given it up several times, but they didn’t. They never quit on us or themselves.”