Todd Breland had expected Friday night’s Class 5A South State semifinal between his Laurel High School Golden Tornadoes and Hattiesburg High School Tigers to be a football game that fans of both schools would long remember.
As it turned out, Breland was absolutely correct.
Laurel, which led by 21 points twice in the first half and still was up two touchdowns late in the third quarter, had to hold on for dear life to claim a 45-42 victory over its archrival at Watkins Stadium.
“It was an outstanding football game,” Breland said after watching three potential, game-winning touchdown passes by Hattiesburg either fall incomplete or be caught just beyond the end zone’s end line, one within a half-foot, in the final minute.
“I was standing there at the end of it, just thinking, ‘Wow, what a moment and to be part of it.’ It’s one of those games that will be talked about for a long time, and I told our kids earlier (Friday) that people are going to talk about this game, one way or another, and I’m glad they’re going to talk about it for us.”
In the end, a 40-yard field goal by Harris Haunenstein with 4 minutes, 24 seconds to play turned out to be just enough to hold off the Tigers and send the Golden Tornadoes into the Class 5A South State title game for a third, consecutive season.
Laurel (12-1), which won its 11th consecutive game by avenging its only loss of the season, will host Picayune High School “Between the Bricks” at 7 p.m. Friday. The Maroon Tide (12-1) advanced by kicking a field goal with 8 seconds to play to defeat Wayne County High School 40-38 in Waynesboro.
“It’s sweet,” said Laurel quarterback Tyquan Ulmer, who threw for 212 yards and four touchdowns. “It gives me another Friday and another chance to win a state championship.”
For Hattiesburg (10-4), the near-miss met an end to a season that saw the Tigers make its deepest playoff progress in four years under Coach Tony Vance.
“Just a great football game, man, between two, really great football teams,” Vance said. “Hats off to Laurel. They brought their ‘A’ game and played a terrific football game (Friday) night.
“But take nothing away from my guy because I thought they showed the heart and the guts and the character of a champ, and that’s what they are.”
The Tigers showed plenty of resilience, taking the Tornadoes’ early haymakers but managing to stay within striking distance.
Ulmer threw touchdown passes of 20 yards to receiver Dontario Drummond and 16 yards to running back Michael Terrell to open a 13-0 lead with 4:04 left in the first quarter.
But a misplayed return effort on a punt led to recovered fumble that kept a Hattiesburg drive alive, and the Tigers capitalized on the mistake when quarterback Julian Conner found receiver D’Andre Humbles with a 24-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 13-7 after one quarter.
Laurel immediately answered, scoring 81 seconds into the second quarter on a 9-yard pass from Ulmer to Je’Vah Jones for a 21-7 lead, and after forcing a three-and-out by Hattiesburg, Terrell scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns for 28-7 Laurel lead.
But just when it appeared the game might be spiraling away from Hattiesburg, Conner guided the Tigers 78 yards, with running back Fabian Franklin pounding in from the 1-yard line.
But a 66-yard pass from Ulmer to Drummond set up Terrell’s 1-yard run, and the Tornadoes had appeared to have applied another hammer lock on the game with just 1:16 left before halftime.
But a 36-yard pass to Humbles sparked an 55-yard drive that Franklin culminated with another 1-yard run on the final play of the half to leave the Tigers behind 35-21 at the break.
In the first half, Laurel had five possessions and scored touchdowns on each. But Hattiesburg opened the second half by forcing the Tornadoes to punt for the first time, and then took its first possession of the third quarter 79 yards to get within 35-28 on Drexlan Allen’s 6-yard run.
Hattiesburg had a chance to get even closer when Ulmer fumbled and Nigil Willis recovered at the Tornadoes’ 19-yard line.
But two plays later, Laurel defensive back Quendarious Robertson intercepted Conner in the end zone to end the threat.
Laurel bumped the lead back to 42-28 on Ulmer’s 9-yard pass to Anthony Jones, but was picked off on the Tornadoes’ next possession by Tre Barnes to set up Jarod Conner’s 2-yard scoring run to get the Tigers back within seven points.
Hattiesburg saw a fourth-quarter drive fizzle on downs near midfield, and Laurel took possession and moved into Hausenstein’s range for 45-35 lead with 4:24 to play.
But the Tigers scored quickly, with Conner finding Humbles for a 54-yard touchdown to get within 45-42 with 3:10 to play, and after forcing Laurel to punt, had a little more than two minutes to find a way into the end zone.
They nearly did.
“The scoreboard may not reflect it, but these guys are winners and they’re going to be winners in life,” Vance said.
Conner finished with 377 yards passing, while Humbles had five catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Murphy had four catches for 65 yards.
Franklin was limited to 30 yards on 15 carries, as Laurel held the Tigers to just 73 yards on the ground.
Terrell rushed for more than 130 yards for a second consecutive week, going for a game-high 133 yards on 24 carries for the Torandoes.
Ulmer ran for 78 yards on 13 carries and Drummond had four catches 147 yards for Laurel.