Hornet Bowl Part 2: East Central, Poplarville ran crash course to 4A South State


Thanksgiving and football just seem to go together, but for most people that experience is a tryptophan induced food coma before the end of the first quarter as opposed to actually playing football.

East Central and Poplarville can’t afford to sleep on one another this holiday season ahead of Friday’s second annual Hornet Bowl with a trip to the 4A state title game on the table right next to the turkey.

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“Fun, honestly. It was a fun memory.”

“It’s probably one of my best memories. Like, to go to a program like that and make it all the way to South State.”

“We’ve been preparing, we knew it was coming. And we’ve actually been wanting it.”

“Kind of what I’ve been wanting all year, get our revenge back and prove our point.”

“It’s pretty mind-blowing, it’s almost like a dream come true. We’re blessed to be able to do this two years in a row, and it just makes for a wonderful high school career.”

The original was an instant classic. Two undefeated powers locked up in a back and forth track meet with only one seat left at the table. Now one wants what the other has and they both want the same thing. Poplarville Head Coach Jay Beech said, “It’d be a dream come true. It’s what you do this job for, it’s what you play for, it’s what you work out for in the summer. These guys have committed a lot of their time, our players, our coaches and this is what everybody is shooting for, so for us to be still alive left with a chance is special.”

East Central Head Coach Seth Smith said, “The special thing for us means that we get to play in a South State championship again knowing that if we’re fortunate enough to win we get to play for a State championship again, so from a football standpoint it’s just special cause you’re still playing. This is what you work for, this is what you do so to get here, again, means hopefully you’re doing something right.”

East Central won last year’s Hornet Bowl 52-45, sending the two sides on different paths for a while, but only a little while. The Hornets from Hurley went on to lose a heartbreaking state title game to Noxubee County, only to bounce right back to championship form in 2018 with a perfect 12-0 record up to this point.

Meanwhile, the Hornets from Poplarville lost their season opener to 5A South State bound Picayune before ripping off 12 consecutive wins of their own. Turns out, they were on a crash course for a rematch this whole time. East Central Right Guard Will Boone said, “Well, we try to take it one game at a time. But when you’re looking out in the media you’re always wondering who you’re going to play. It’s going to get there eventually.”

Poplarville Linebacker Ross Barnett said, “Kind of figured we’d end up playing them again, and want to play them again and see how we match-up this year.”

Whereas the 2017 rendition featured a pair of 200 yard rushers, this year’s showdown is shaping up to be a lot more defensive. Led by Southern Miss commit Avery White, East Central is giving up less than nine points per game this season and Poplarville less than 15. “It seems to be more of a defensive struggle this year. Both teams have outstanding defenses. I think East Central has got one of the best defenses in the state regardless of classifications, so I’d be surprised if anybody scored a lot of points.”

“From a coaching standpoint it’s kind of neat because we’re winning in different ways. Last year, it seemed like we’d score 50 or 60 a game. This year, we’re scoring 10 and 17. But thank God there’s no rule that you’ve got to win by a certain amount, you’ve just got to win by one. And the way our defense has been playing, hopefully they’ll give us a chance to be successful.”

On the other end of the sequel is the first-ever championship weekend at USM’s MM Roberts Stadium where one of these two schools will represent  4A South for the third year in a row.

Even with both sides equally thankful for the opportunity, there’s still just one seat left at the table. “During Thanksgiving you’re giving thanks for your family and your friends and everything God has given you, but football is the first priority this week. My last game on this field, defending South State, couldn’t ask for better.”

“I can definitely say this year has meant a lot more to me. Kind of a lot more emotional towards it knowing any game could be your last, so I feel a little bit more nervous each game. Give a little extra effort to keep playing one more week.”

Friday’s South State clash will kick off at 7 p.m. from Hurley. The winner will advance to that 4A title game at Southern Miss at 11 a.m. on December 1st.

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A native of Pass Christian and a St. Stanislaus alum, Jeff Haeger comes to News 25 from right in our backyard. He most recently spent more than three years working as the sports reporter for WHLT-TV in Hattiesburg, where he provided extensive coverage of his alma mater, The University of Southern Mississippi. At Southern Miss, Jeff was a member of the Honors College and graduated with a B.A. degree in Broadcast Journalism with a minor in Spanish. He also wrote for USM's award-winning school newspaper, The Student Printz, where he won first place for Best Sports Story in 2013. Jeff loves to travel, and is excited to get back on the water to reunite with his family. In his spare time you can find Jeff spending time with his friends, and maybe even winning a fantasy football league. For sports stories contact Jeff at jhaeger@wxxv25.com.


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