HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Tradition trumped legendary Friday night, as Presbyterian Christian High School's record-setting football season came to end.
Jackson Preparatory School slowed down the Bobcats' record-breaking running back Isaiah Woullard just enough to pull off a rock 'em-sock 'em, 24-21 victory in the semifinals of the MAIS AAAA-Division I playoffs.
The victory sends Prep (12-1), the four-time defending state champion, into the next week's state title game against Madison Ridgeland Academy. MRA (9-3) defeated Copiah Academy 49-21 in Friday's other semifinal.
The loss, the first of the fall for the home-standing, top-seeded Bobcats (11-1), left nigh inconsolable players scattered throughout the postgame gathering and Coach Joey Hawkins red-eyed but proud at the end of a season few had expected.
"This team is just special," Hawkins said. "It's been a magical season. When I got here eight years ago, I never dreamed we'd be 11-0 during the regular season and beat all the Jackson schools in one year. It's tough for the kids. They hurt. But we're going to praise them for their accomplishments. It's been a magical ride."
Woullard, who broke the state's career rushing record of 8,254 yards on a 12-yard run in the third quarter, did all he could.
The senior rushed for 265 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries, including an 85-yard dart over the right side that left the game tied 14-14 at halftime.
"The best player I've ever coached," Hawkins said. "Just a once-in-a-lifetime back."
Woullard, who rushed for 2,700 yards and scored 36 touchdowns in 12 games, said he hated to see the Bobcats come so close to playing for the school's first state crown in football.
"It just hurts," Woullard said. "To win this game, we had to almost be perfect, but that's how the game is and you have to take it as it is. It's tough, but you just have to do it."
It was a hard-nosed game that the Bobcats never led.
Prep, which dropped a 28-16 decision to PCS during the regular season, scored first when Jerrion Ealy caught a swing pass from Chance Lovertich, broke two tackles and then sped 70 yards down the right sideline to put the Patriots ahead 7-0 with 2:46 to play in the first quarter.
But the Bobcats answered right back, needing just five plays to go 80 yards. Quarterback Luke Hudson found Brandon Thornton behind the coverage for a 53-yard gain to Prep's 15-yard line, and Woullard covered the distance on two carries, including a 4-yard run that tied the game with 1:10 left in the quarter.
In the second quarter, Ealy returned a punt 55 yards for an apparent touchdown that was called back on a blocking penalty. The return still set up the Patriots at the Bobcats' 30, and Lovertich immediately found a leaping Tate Fowler for 29 yards to the 1-yard line.
An illegal motion penalty pushed the ball back to the 6, but Ealy needed just two carries from there, including a dive over the top from a yard out to put Prep ahead 14-7 with 6:45 left before halftime.
The lead lasted on play. After an illegal motion penalty bumped the ball back to the 15, Woullard broke through the right side, beat the pursuit to the sideline and outran the defenders to tie the game 22 seconds later.
Hudson was picked off on the opening possession of the third quarter, putting the Patriots at the Bobcats' 27-yard line. From there, the Bobcats' defense stiffened and Prep had to settle for Reed Peets' 37-yard field goal and a 17-7 lead.
Later in the quarter, Lovertich capped a 65-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak to put the Patriots up 24-14 with 3:01 left in the period.
Woullard carried 14 times for 71 yards on a 73-yard drive that spanned the third and fourth quarters, twice converting fourth downs, including a second-effort, 1-yard scoring run that pulled the Bobcats within 24-21 with 8:22 to play.
But PCS turned the ball over on downs twice in the final 5:46 of the game, with Woullard coming up a half-yard shy at his own 39-yard line and then coming up a long yard short on fourth-and-6 from his own 8.
Prep knelt three times, called timeout on just before the play clock ran out on fourth down, and then bled all but the final eight seconds off the clock.
Ealy swatted away Hudson's final, Hail Mary along the left sideline, putting the Patriots on course for a fifth, consecutive state title.
"We knew Ealy was going to make some big plays … that Woullard was going to make some big plays, too," Prep coach Ricky Black said. "We were just hoping our defense was going to come back in the second half and make some stops. That was the biggest thing that we wanted to do. We got a little turnover in the second half, and to me that was huge, (helped us get) a 10-point lead, and then the offense took enough time off the clock to win the game. PCS has a very good football team and they're well deserving of their record. I just hope we have enough left, when you look at these two teams, and their records and what they've done (Friday night). I just hope we have enough to get that."
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