By Austin Bishop
The Winston County Journal
After filling the air with footballs for 15 games, the Louisville High School Wildcats used a power running game to will their way past Hazlehurst High School 30-28 in the MHSAA Class 3A State Football Championship Game and complete a perfect 16-0 season.
“We took what they were giving us,” said a cold but happy Louisville High School head football coach M.C Miller on Saturday afternoon. “We talked about it coming into the game that we might be running the ball a lot and whatever they gave us we were going to take, whether it was running or passing.”
When the Hazlehurst defense elected to spread out in an effort to cover Louisville’s bevy of talented receivers, leaving only five defenders to play against the run, the decision was an obvious one.
“We knew if they gave us a certain look we were going to have to run the ball,” said LHS senior quarterback Wyatt Roberts. “The line did a great job of blocking and the running backs just ran the ball extremely hard.”
Going into the state title game the Wildcats had run the ball more than 40 times as a team only once, that being 44 rushing attempts in a 28-6 win over Noxubee County in the third week of the season. Against Hazlehurst on Saturday the Wildcats ran the ball a whopping 59 times for 215 yards. Three LHS ball carriers either equaled or surpassed the highest number of individual rushing attempts they had in a game all season.
Avonte Harris carried the ball 22 times for a team high 110 yards in the win over the Indians. His previous high was 18 carries against Wilkinson County and he had double figure rushing attempts only four times leading into the championship contest.
Demarcus Brooks, who finished the season with a team high 1,016 rushing yards for the Wildcats, had carried the ball no more than 15 times in a game all year, with that being in the win over Noxubee. On Saturday he carried the ball 18 times for 62 yards. Roberts equalled his high in attempts with 16, as he tallied 37 yards and scored a touchdown against Hazlehurst.
“They were saying there was going to be a whole lot of rain this week so they were saying we were going to have to pound the ball, pound the ball, pound the ball, so that is what we did,” Brooks said.
“We are really a passing team, but we can run the ball too,” Harris said. “It felt good to me.”
Senior wide receiver Dalton Hudspeth had no problem with the running backs carrying the load on the way to the state championship win.
“They put everybody out on the receivers so we just had to grind them out,” he said. “I know that was kind of off our game, but we did what we had to do.”
Offensive line coach Brian Anderson said when Hazlehurst decided to heavily defend the pass, the running attack opened up.
“They gave us a five-man box and dared us to run the football and our guys always feel like they are up to the challenge,” he said.
“It was great,” said junior offensive guard Kirk Sisson. “The whole line just worked together and we were able to get the job done.”
That they did, winning the school’s eighth MHSAA Football Championship in eight trips to the title game in the process.
In a game filled with crucial turnovers, Hazlehurst took advantage of a Louisville fumble to score the first touchdown of the game when Dycelious Reese hauled in a 15-yard scoring pass from Jarvis Warner with 10:44 to go in the first quarter.
Louisville — which fumbled away a scoring opportunity into the end zone on its next possession — eventually tied the game at 7-7 with with 4:32 left in the first quarter when Jeremy Sangster concluded a 74-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
Jalon Sangster batted a Warner pass up into the air and then intercepted it for LHS, giving the Wildcats good field position at the Hazlehurst 25-yard line. A play later Louisville scored on a pass form Roberts to Desmond Goss. Corey McCullough’s extra point kick, the second of four he would make on the day, gave LHS a 14-7 lead with 3:25 left to play in the first quarter.
Hazlehurst came right back to tie the game, moving the ball 80 yards on 10 plays to even the score on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Reese on a third-and-16 play with 1:20 left in the quarter.
The LHS defense rose up in the second quarter, as Malik Slaughter recorded an unusual safety to give the ‘Cats a 16-14 lead with 4:33 left in the first half. HHS attempted a pass out of its own end zone. Slaughter batted the pass into the air and then tackled the Hazlehurst receiver — who caught the ball in the end zone — for the safety and two key points.
LHS took the ensuing free kick and moved 35 yards on four plays to score on a 19-yard scoring pass from Roberts to Dontae Jones just over a minute later, giving the Wildcats a 23-21 lead at the half.
Hazlehurst cut it to 23-22 with 4:36 left in the third quarter when Reese returned a punt 87 yards and Hazlehurst then converted a two-point conversion to cut the winners lead to just one.
Louisville stretched its advantage to 30-22 late in the third quarter when Roberts scored on a 4-yard run.
Hazlehurst threatened to push the game into overtime when the Indians scored on a 14-yard pass from Warner to Dedrick Reese with 41.7 seconds left to play. Slaughter then batted down the two-point conversion pass attempt to seal the win for the Wildcats.
Roberts finished the night with 159 yards on 12-of-22 passing for two touchdowns, pushing his season total to 38.
Goss caught six passes for 72 yards, while Jones had two for 48, Harris two for 19, T.J. Hudson one for 13 and Hudspeth one for seven.