Hattiesburg, Laurel primed for monster South State Title game

By CAMAL PETRO,

There couldn’t be a better scenario drawn up for football fans in Hattiesburg. Rivals Hattiesburg and Laurel will tangle one more time in 2017, and this time it’s for the right to play for a 5A State Championship. It’s the third straight season the two will meet in the postseason, too.

The Hattiesburg Tigers (13-0) will play the Laurel Golden Tornadoes (9-4) at D.I. Patrick Stadium Friday at 7 p.m., and no, the game will not be moved to Southern Miss’ M.M. Roberts Stadium like some rumors would suggest.

“No chance,” Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said. “That’s some people with some wishful thinking, I guess. We worked our butts off to host a home South State Championship game, and guess what? We’re going to play right here at D.I. Patrick Stadium.”

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The atmosphere Friday night should be second-to-none, too.

“It’s going to be unbelievable,” Laurel coach Todd Breland said. “It’s going to be packed in tight with people all around the field. It’ll be loud, but what will make this so great is the way our kids compete against each other. It’s almost like looking yourself in the mirror, and our kids have always had a lot of respect for one another. They’ll play a clean, hard-fought football game, I promise you that. Both sides will play extremely well.”

Since losing to West Jones in mid-October, the Golden Tornadoes has won five straight games. They were 4-4 after the loss to West Jones, and they’ve looked impressive since. Laurel is averaging 45 points per game while opponents are scoring 15, and it’s pitched one shutout during that time.

“Coach Breland does a great job,” Vance said. “Laurel is one of those teams that’s going to get better each and every week, and they were young at the beginning of the year and has a lot of football under their belt now.”

Sophomore quarterback Sinclair Ulmer has taken over the quarterback duties, and he’s completed 54 percent of his passes for 599 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception in those fives wins. He’s totaled 1,330 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions on 52 percent passing this season.

Freshman Xavier Evans could also see playing time. He passed for 110 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions on 8-of-17 passing against Hattiesburg in Week 2, and he rushed for 95 yards on 14 carries.

Junior Zias Perryman has emerged as a weapon for the Tornadoes. He’s rushed for 1,151 yards and 21 scores on 171 carries – a 6.7-yard per attempt average. Hattiesburg held him to 41 yards and a touchdown on 11 attempts, but he’s had four 100-yards and has scored in all but two games since the loss to the Tigers.

“They have a very explosive offense, just like us, but I believe we can pull it off,” senior defensive back Ray’kell Ducksworth said. “Our defense has stepped up and we look way better than we did at the beginning of the year. I feel like we can handle it.”

Ducksworth is third on the team with three interceptions and one fumble recovery. He’s part of a defense that has collected 18 picks and eight fumble recoveries. Ducksworth returned an 80-yard interception for a touchdown this season, too, and it came Week 1 at Petal.

Like all seniors, Friday will be Ducksworth’s last home game in a Hattiesburg uniform, and he’s pretty excited about it being against Laurel.

“It’s another chance to get to play in the rivalry,” he said. “Of course, it’s not the Brown Jug game, but it’s a great chance to play against those guys. Even though they have talent and we have talent, it comes down to who wants it the most this time of the year.”

The Golden Tornadoes’ defense has been stout the last five games, but they’ve had a strong season, too. They held Hattiesburg to a season-high 20 points, and have held teams not named Brookhaven and Picayune down to few points. Oak Grove did score 42 in the Week 3 matchup, but the Warriors weren’t being stopped for anybody at that point in the season.

The secondary has collected 15 interceptions this season and six fumble recoveries, as junior Victor Coleman leads the way with four interceptions in eight games.

“They’re very opportunistic,” Vance said. “If you lay it up in the air, they have some ballhawks who can go get it. Tips and over-throws, we talk about it all of the time. Those guys do a great job with tips and over-throws. If you over-throw a guy, they’ll run it down. If it’s a tipped ball, they pluck it out of the air.”