By Jason Munz/The Hattiesburg American
HATTIESBURG — If last week’s Class 2A South State Championship was a boxing title fight, East Marion was one haymaker from knocking Bassfield clean of its feet.
Down 14-10 with a little more than six minutes left in the game, the Yellowjackets’ dream season was dangerously close to coming to an end. A knockout punch by the Eagles, and the heavily-favored Bassfield — as well as its championship hopes — would’ve crumbled into a heap on the mat.
But that didn’t happen.
Head coach Lance Mancuso looked to his most experienced players — quarterback Jomez Applewhite, running back Jerome Keys, among other seniors — and they did exactly what great teams do.
Four minutes after the drive began, Keys ended it with a touchdown run that gave Bassfield (15-0) the lead. Then, the Yellowjackets defense rose to the occasion, keeping East Marion off the scoreboard and sealing the victory.
“A lot of people may not realize, but it just goes to show how good this team is,” Mancuso said. “Anybody else, they’d have folded — would’ve never been able to put that drive together and done what they did. Like Alabama going down the field against LSU (on Nov. 3), after LSU had whipped ‘em the entire second half.
With Applewhite and junior C.J. Moore at the quarterback position, Mancuso has employed a season-long system where each signal-caller alternates by quarters. Last week, though, Mancuso decided to move them in and out every offensive series.
Until the final two series, that is.
“We actually went with Jomez the last two series,” Mancuso said. “It would’ve been C.J.’s turn, definitely. But (Applewhite) didn’t deserve to end his high school career standing on the sideline. There was no second guess, no thought about it. He’s been a great kid, a super young man. He deserved to be between the white lines when the chips were down.”
As exciting as last week’s South State title win was, Bassfield has had to quickly re-focus, and turn its collective attention toward Eupora, which it will meet at 3 p.m. Friday for the Class 2A State Championship at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in Jackson.
The Yellowjackets are vying for their fifth state title, while Mancuso is aiming for his third as a head coach. The fifth-year Bassfield man won a title in 2009 at the Jefferson Davis County school, and another at Seminary.
Eupora (14-1), whose only loss came against Calhoun City on Sept. 14, beat the Wildcats in a rematch two weeks ago in a North State semifinals matchup.
“They have playmakers,” Mancuso said of Eupora. “That’s the thing you have to have to get here, so they’re here for a reason. They’re here to win, so it’s going to take a great effort by our football team to put four quarters together and win.”
Eagles head coach Junior Graham said even though he hasn’t seen Bassfield play this season he knows the daunting task ahead of his team on Friday.
“There are so many things that stand out about them,” Graham said. “The beauty of their team is they execute so well on both sides of the football. It’s just you don’t see a weakness in them. You’ve always got to be on edge, because they can score on offense at any time and they’re defensive backs break on the ball so quick. It looks like you’ve got something, and then you don’t.”