By Stan Caldwell / Hattiesburg American
The Meridian Star
Brad Duncan knew what kind of a game he'd get when his West Marion football team welcomed Philadelphia on Friday night for a huge high school playoff game.
"It's like we talked about," said Duncan. "We knew it was going to a street fight for 48 minutes, and that's what it came down to."
Indeed, it took every bit of the 48 minutes before the host Trojans celebrated an 18-16 victory against the Tornadoes in the Class 3A South State semifinals.
West Marion took the lead for good on a 74-yard pass play from Jamaar Cole to Frank Lewis with 2:32 remaining in the game, but the victory wasn't secured until Philadelphia sophomore kicker John Smith shanked a 17-yard field goal attempt with four seconds to play.
"He just hooked it," said Philadelphia coach Teddy Dyess. "It was just one of those things. It's high school football, where a play or two makes the difference. And it came down to that one play."
West Marion (13-0) advanced to the South State championship game next week at Hazlehurst, which eliminated Seminary 34-28. Philly finished its season at 13-1.
"Coach Dyess and I are old friends, and I hate it for him," said Duncan, who has the Trojans one step away from the state championship for the first time in school history.
"I know how it feels. This was one of those games where you hate to see a loser."
In fact, the whole game was a roller-coaster of emotions and shifting momentum.
After a miserable opening series, West Marion got the first break of the game, recovering a Tornado fumble at the Trojan 35-yard-line.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, senior running back Vonnie Harrell barreled over right tackle and into the secondary for a 37-yard game, igniting a seven-play, 65-yard scoring drive. Harrell got the score on a 3-yard run.
West Marion, as it has done all season, went for two on the conversion, and failed — and the Trojans would fail on all three of their touchdowns. Still, it was the start of a big night for Harrell, who rushed 23 times for 188 yards.
"I just kept pushing," said Harrell. "They got to me a couple of times, but I kept pushing, kept running, kept believing."
The Tornadoes seized the momentum in the second quarter, driving 67 yards on 10 plays, with quarterback Romon Gray scoring on a 16-yard run.
Philly's defense stepped up on the ensuing drive, driving the Trojans back after they had marched to a first-and-goal at the Tornado 9.
Two sacks and a holding call gave the Tornadoes the ball at their own 30, and Gray went deep twice, the first for a 44-yard gain and the second resulting in an interception at the Trojan 3.
But on first down, Cole was sacked and penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety for the Tornadoes, and that was how the half ended, with Philly leading 9-6.
West regained the lead on a 15-yard pass from Cole to Cleve Lewis midway through the third period, but the Tornadoes regained a 16-12 advantage on a 1-yard run by Jacardius Griffin.
Philly seemed to have momentum, stopping the Trojans on fourth down from the Tornado 17, but the Tornadoes went nowhere, and Smith's best punt of the night, a 45-yard roller, put West at its own 33 with 3:25 to play.
On first down, Tre Pace lost 7 yards, but on the next play, Lewis got open down the left sideline, Cole laid the ball in perfectly and Lewis outraced the pursuit for the go-ahead score.
"I saw (the defender) was playing up, so I faked the slant, and he bit on it," said Lewis. "I just cut it up the field and the pass was right there."
Gray drove the Tornadoes quickly down the field, getting a first-and-goal at the Trojan 1 with 12 seconds to play. Gray tried to run it in, but was stopped, and Dyess elected to try the field goal.
"Our defense played their hearts out all night long," said Duncan. The defense came up big when it had to, and our offense responded when they had to."