PINE BELT (WDAM) - For the past eight years or so, Petal High School has opened its football seasons with a bang, taking on some of the best competition in Mississippi.
This year will not be any different.
The Panthers will travel across the Leaf River to visit their Forrest County neighbor Hattiesburg High School at 7 p.m. Saturday at D.I. Patrick Stadium for a clash pitting teams with high expectations for 2016.
"It's going to be two really good football teams with a lot of excitement around the programs right now," Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. "We'll tee it up and see what happens."
Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance, who has reshaped the program's culture during his first three years at the helm, is well aware of the challenge facing the Tigers.
Petal, coming off a run to the Class 6A state championship game, was selected No. 22 earlier this month in the USA Today's Top 25 national high school rankings.
"Not only are they one of the best teams in the state, but according to USA Today, the best team in the state," Vance said. "So, win, lose or draw, we're going to be better after the game, I can tell you that."
HHS, which bolted to a 4-0 start before injuries crippled the Tigers' season, is being touted as a team capable of deep run in the Class 5A playoffs, sparked by the terrific trinity of Dandy Dozen wideout Jordan Murphy, senior quarterback Julian Conner and junior running back Fabian Franklin.
"Tony's done a great job over there, and this may be the best team he's had since he's been there," Boyles said. "A lot of weapons. Obviously, it always starts with the quarterback, but then you have the guys around him."
Tanner Estill will debut at quarterback for Petal, while senior running back Stephon Huderson will be expected to anchor the Panthers' ground game for a second, consecutive season.
Vance said he expects his defense, which had to replace all four starters up front, to rise to the occasion.
"We lost some guys along the defensive front, but we've made some great strides this summer so far," Vance said. "We feel good about them going into the game. We feel like we have an opportunity to be really good on that side of the ball."
Both coaches said they are expecting an overflow crowd for the first game of the new season.
"I was telling our kids this week in practice, 'Look around now because there's nobody here, but come Saturday, you won't be able to see those bleachers or see those woods because people are going to be three deep standing at the fences,'" Vance said. "And that's part of it. That's the fun and excitement of high school football."
About The WDAM 7Gametime App:
The WDAM 7 Gametime app is bringing you the latest on Pine Belt sports.
The app features up to the minute scores for games, video highlights from local games, in-depth interviews with coaches, and updated schedules for your convenience.
Interact with us by sending us your pictures from local games or by joining us in conversation on social media.
You can also get the latest on Southern Miss football, Mississippi sports, SEC, NFL, and Saints coverage.
Download now, it is Gametime in South Mississippi!
Apple users can download The WDAM 7 Gametime app here.
Android users can download The WDAM 7 Gametime app here.