By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – In sports, it’s funny how a team’s most successful season can come when you least you expect it.
Take for example the 2009 Lafayette football team. The Commodores entered the season without 16 starters – including quarterback, Montez Phillips, who was a big-time college prospect and could play a variety of positions – from last year’s team that lost in the state quarterfinals.
No matter. With nine new starters on offense, including a sophomore at quarterback, and seven on defense, the Commodores posted a 14-2 record and advanced to their first state championship game in the program’s history.
The Commodores lost to Dylan Favre and St. Stanislaus in the Class 4A state championship game, but that doesn’t take away from them posting the program’s winningest season.
“We lost nine starters on offense. We lost seven starters on defense. The answer is no,” said Lafayette coach Anthony Hart, the Daily Journal’s 2009 Coach of the Year, when asked if he expected the state title run.
And what only adds to the magnificence of the season is the path the team took to get to Jackson.
After losing 25-19 to Itawamba AHS in Week 4 of the regular season, the ‘Dores won their next seven games and the Division 2-4A championship. One of those wins came in a non-division game in front of an estimated 10,000 fans in Florida.
In the playoffs, the ‘Dores beat up on McClain, ousted two-time defending Class 3A state champion Louisville, avenged last year’s playoff loss to Shannon, and dismantled previously undefeated and top-ranked Itawamba AHS.
“I really thought it was a real, real hard task for someone to go through that, especially with some younger guys that we had,” Hart said.
“The ball kind of went our way. You have to have a little luck in this thing. The best team doesn’t always seem to win.”
But luck didn’t play a major role in the Commodores advancing to the state title game. Lafayette outscored its playoff opponents a combined 114-33.
A move that paid huge dividends for Lafayette came in August. Coming out of spring camp, senior Dominique Price had the nod as the team’s starting quarterback.
Price, however, happened to be a stellar safety and one of the team’s best defensive players. Simply put: He was needed on defense.
Fortunately for Hart and the Commodores, there was a 6-foot-3, 227-pound quarterback emerging in sophomore Jeremy Liggins.
“We decided that for defensive reasons to put the other kid (Price) on defense, and that was the reason he (Liggins) became quarterback – at first,” Hart said. “But after about one series in the first jamboree, it was evident that he (Liggins) was the quarterback for good.”
The sophomore QB went on to pass for 1,487 yards and 18 touchdowns and rush for 1,483 more yards and 16 TDs in his first varsity season.
In the playoffs, Lafayette was faced with the challenge of playing at Shannon in the quarterfinals. The Red Raiders defeated the ‘Dores, 7-0, in last year’s quarterfinals game in Oxford, and were once again led by one of the state’s best running backs Keon McGaughy.
No one had yet to drastically limit the offensive production from McGaughy this season. However, Hart’s Lafayette squad did just that by holding him to a season-low 31 yards on 12 carries, and the end result was just as impressive: a 24-13 win over then third-ranked Shannon.
That win set up a rematch with Itawamba AHS in the semifinals.
More than two months since they last played, the outcome in Fulton was not even close, as the Commodores rolled to a 31-6 win over a senior-laden Itawamba team.
“You just gotta have some luck; the ball has to bounce your way a lot of times,” Hart said about his team’s playoff run. “And it did. We got some breaks and we made our breaks.”
For more on Hart and his Commodores team, visit the high school sports blog at NEMS360.com