SOSO, MS (WDAM) - Scott Pierson spent 18 years wandering in the wilderness that can be Mississippi High School football, trying to guide the West Jones High School Mustangs to the postseason promised land.
Oddly enough, after leading West Jones to the banks of the river this fall, Pierson discovered that the long journey had produced strands of satisfaction every bit as fulfilling as grasping the golden idol at the final destination.
“The most gratifying part was the Eagle Walk, and what was so gratifying about the Eagle Walk was seeing players from 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, all those players who played for us, and me, that weren’t able to get to (this) point, and were excited for me and the staff and the community and felt like they were a big reason we were there, and they were,” Pierson said. “Everybody says, ‘Well, that’s not about winning and losing,’ but in a way it is, because if you’re not winning, you’re not getting to enjoy the rewards.
“But at the same time, to have those guys, some with their wives and two or three kids, being there to cheer their high school on in a game that they weren’t able to get to and being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor in laying the base, that was the most gratifying thing for me.”
West Jones got closer to the promised land than at any other time in school history with a three-game playoff run that included a come-from-behind victory over Stone High School, a dominating upset of unbeaten Class 5A South State favorite Hattiesburg High School and stonewalling of Picayune High School.
It marked the first time the Mustangs had won a South State football title in six trips to the game, including five under Pierson.
It also marked the first time in school history West Jones would play for a state football championship.
The Mustangs (12-3) came up short in the Class 5A finale, dropping a 27-12 decision to two-time defending state champion West Point High School.
Still, for taking the Mustangs farther than they’d been before, Pierson was selected as WDAM-TV Coach of the Year.
“He’s had a lot of good football teams with a lot better offenses and had a lot more opportunities to get there,” said Mike Taylor, Pierson’s predecessor at West Jones. “I was just real proud they made it.
“Only bad thing is we lost.”
Which is exactly what Pierson said following the state championship game.
“I’ll tell you, you work so hard to get here, you try and enjoy it, but right now, it sucks,” Pierson had said postgame. “It really does.”
But, the Mustangs wouldn’t have gotten there without Pierson, Taylor said.
“The kids listen to him,” Taylor said. “He’s a great motivator and he’s got great coaches to help him. I know what he’s going through, he’s got a lot on his plate every day and every week. It takes a good staff and good players, but they rose to the occasion. It just came together.”
Pierson said some of 2018’s predecessors had their chances, but wound up losing the wrong game at the wrong time to miss playing for a state crown.
“I thought it was something that we were going to do every year,” Pierson said. “We were 12-1, 13-1, 12-2. I think in five years, we might have lost six games, total.
“We were good enough, but something always happened. Either we ran into a better team or just didn’t play well that night.”
Pierson said this herd of Mustangs were special, shouldering a lot of the responsibility for their play on their own.
“I think what separated this team from a lot of other teams was its self-discipline,” Pierson said. “The coaches didn’t have to address a lot of issues; the players addressed issues. The coaches didn’t really have to address effort; the players addressed effort.
“Once it’s driven from the inside out, you have a chance to be really special.”
But West Jones senior defensive tackle Byron Young, who led a defense that came up with six shutouts and allowed an average of just 10.0 points per game, said Pierson’s leadership also played a huge role in the success.
“It’s been great,” Young said. “It’s been great playing for him. I’ve known him for forever, since I was little, because all my brothers played for him. It’s just been a great experience being around him for these last three years.”
Pierson said he hoped this year’s experience would pay dividends for future West Jones teams.
“That’s the biggest thing for me, flipping that switch back,” Pierson said. “The encore is something, after you get a taste of that environment down at Southern Miss, where our people only had to go 30 minutes to get there, I mean, it was unbelievable.
“A good friend of mine said, ‘Coach, after you go, all it does is make you want to go back and go back,” I looked at him, and said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve been there eight times,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but it never gets old.’ To be honest, after you’ve experienced that, it kind of fuels the fire. You don’t want to wait 18 years again.
“But everything has to line up right, because there’s a lot of good schools out there and a lot of good coaches out there, and they can find ways to make you have a miserable year.”