By JOHN WILBERT / NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – When Anfernee Gooch and Demetri McIntosh were seventh-graders, they played on a football team with 74 of their fellow classmates.
Out of that group, there are only 14 still playing for the Lafayette High varsity football program that has advanced to the MHSAA Class 4A state championship game for the second consecutive season.
“Those guys are the ones that you build your program on,” said Commodores head coach Anthony Hart, “because they stuck it out.”
Gooch, a running back/wide receiver, McIntosh, a defensive end, and teammate Adam Hyland, an offensive lineman, got to experience the pomp and circumstances of making it to the state championship game when they attended Monday morning’s MHSAA Football Championships news conference at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
“It was hard picking three seniors,” Hart said about selecting players to bring with him to Monday’s event.
On Saturday afternoon, the undefeated and top-ranked Commodores (15-0) will try to win their first football title in the school’s history. They will take on North Pike (14-1) at 3 p.m. at Mississippi Memorial Stadium in Jackson.
“A very good group of seniors,” Hart said of this year’s senior players.
Over in Calhoun City, Perry Liles has a solid group of senior players who played as sophomores in the 2008 Class 1A state championship game won by Puckett, 25-21.
The Wildcats (15-0), the Daily Journal’s No. 1-ranked small school, will play Lumberton (13-1) in the Class 2A state title game at 3 p.m. on Friday at Memorial Stadium.
“It’s been one of those seasons that you want to have every year,” said Liles, who is in his second year at the helm of the Wildcats. “We’re not a team that’s dominated everybody.
“We’ve been behind four or five times, and we try to emphasize overcoming adversity and not getting too high or getting too low. They’ve done that and we’ve played one game at a time.
“It’s exciting to have kids that will listen to you to do things like that.”
Stellar seniors J.R. Jennings (quarterback), Aaron Thompson (defensive back/wide receiver) and Demarius Howard (wide receiver/defensive back) were on hand at Monday’s news conference. They have largely contributed to the Wildcats’ success the past couple of seasons.
Calhoun City suffered their fair share of injuries early on last year – Liles’ first season as the Wildcats’ head coach and the school’s first in Class 2A since 2006, when it lost to East Marion, 36-27, in the state championship game.
“We started off 2-5 and we finished up strong,” said Liles, who was named the head coach just before the start of training camp last summer, “but we just had one of those years.
“Getting used to 2A, I think that made a difference. Every week in 2A, you’re going to have an opponent that can play.
“We overcame that and got our feet back to the ground and just sort of played our game and took care of business. We were a lot better this year.”
In Class 5A, West Point (13-1) has a return business trip to Memorial Stadium scheduled for Saturday. The third-ranked Green Wave are the defending 5A state champions and are looking for title No. 7 on Saturday night against Brookhaven (9-4).
“Every year is hard,” Wave head coach Chris Chambless said about making it to the title game. “It’s hard to look back to say it’s harder or easier; it’s hard every year.
“You work hard, play the game and see what happens. We’re fortunate enough this year to be able to get lucky and make it back.”
Aberdeen, the Daily Journal’s Class 3A top-ranked team, will try to make up for a 20-point collapse against Tylertown in last year’s 3A championship game. The Bulldogs led 20-0 after the first quarter before being outscored 34-0 the rest of the game.
Aberdeen (14-1) will play Forest (14-0) in Saturday morning’s 3A tilt, which will only be the Northeast Mississippi school’s second appearance in a state championship football game.
“It’s tough coming back, no doubt,” said Bulldogs head coach Chris Duncan. “It’s really hard to get to this point of the year. I feel good about it.
“The kids have worked hard, and hopefully the experience of being here last year, they will know what to expect.”
Contributing: Brandon Speck, Monroe Journal; Contact John Wilbert at 678-1572 or firstname.lastname@example.org.