For Curtis Chambers Jr., who grew up going to War Eagle Stadium on football Friday nights in the fall, Wayne County football is a family affair.
His father, Curtis Chambers Sr., was a defensive lineman for the War Eagles.
“We talk football, every day,” Chambers said. “Every day, I get home and that’s what we talk about.”
So, when Chambers dons the white “WC” helmet and pulls the blue jersey trimmed in orange over his pads, he is well aware of the link forged with a program that immerses its young in the proud tradition they one day will carry onto the field themselves.
”It is a big deal,” said Chambers, a 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior linebacker who will play in the heart of the War Eagles’ defense. “The same people you’d seen on the field when you were little, now they’ve come back to watch you. They want to see you do better than they did when they were playing.”
Doing better is precisely what Chambers and his teammates have in mind for the 2017 season.
A year ago, a Wayne County team that returned only one starter on offense and one on defense got off to an uncharacteristic 0-4 start against a brutal non-region schedule.
The War Eagles then ripped off six consecutive wins before falling to eventual South State champion Laurel High School in the regular-season finale, earning an accustomed spot in the Class 5A playoffs.
Wayne County won an opening-round game against Pascagoula before seeing a 7-6 season come to a heartbreaking close when Picayune kicked a game-winning field goal with 12 seconds left in the South State semifinals.
“Last year, not everybody had experience how it was going to be, but we still fought for what we could,” Chambers said. “This year, we want to go further.”
The War Eagles could be positioned to do just that, sporting a still relatively young team that earned its wings in 2016.
“We’ve got guys who have started and played a significant amount of snaps back from last year,” Wayne County coach Todd Mangum said. “We had some key losses, but we like where we are with our football team right now.”
Senior Zabryon Jackson and sophomore Zhakerreun Wesley are vying at quarterback, but regardless, both will play in some capacity, Mangum said.
“The great thing about it is that they’re both going to be on the field, whether they are playing quarterback, playing receiver, playing running back,” Mangum said. “They’re both talented enough where one guy may be taking the snap and throwing it or handing it to the other guy.”
The engine from last year’s running game, Chris Cooley, has graduated, but Wesley and seniors W.C. Washington and Tre Williamson are expected to share the backfield load.
“Always believed that you have to be able to run the football to be successful,” Mangum said. “From peewees to pros, you’ve got to be able to run the football.
“We’ve got some bodies there. Nobody’s going to carry it 30 times a game, but we’ve got guys that when we hand them they ball, we feel good about it.”
The line returns both starting tackles in senior Dalton Cochran and junior Cole Turner. The interior will be manned by players who got snaps in limited roles last season, with juniors Austin Hudson, Hunter Philyaw and Timothy Loper in the mix at guard and Philyaw and Landon Williams at center.
The receiving corps returns nearly intact, including seniors Dearius Royal, Demetrius Harris, Josh Page, and Bryce Mason.
”All those guys, have experience,” Mangum said.
The War Eagles’ 3-4 defense could be anchored formidable, anchored up front by Ole Miss commitment Quentin Blevins. Junior Braxton Lee, who missed 2016 with a knee injury, will join seniors Greg Robinson and Leevan Davis and junior Jeremy Sibley in the defensive line rotation.
“It’s kinda like on offense, you want to be good up the middle on defense, from the nose all the way back,” Mangum said.
Which is where Chambers comes in. Last year, he split time between strong-side linebacker and middle linebacker. This year, he’ll be holding down the center of War Eagles’ defense.
“I love it,” Chambers said. “I like to hit and I’m a ballhawk. I read the field, want to account for everything.”
Said Mangum: “Curtis is a steady guy for us.”
Senior Kaleb Pitts and junior Riley Revon also will patrol the interior of the defense, while senior Rod Watkins and junior Josh Howard man the edges.
Williamson, who intercepted eight passes in 2016, returns at one corner, with juniors Shawntavious Smith and Malique Briggs working at the other. Harris and Page and fellow senior Tydrickus Hill are slotted in as safeties.
The War Eagles also have an asset in senior punter/place-kicker Heath Mosley, who averaged 42 yards per punt last season.
“We’ve got as good a specialty guy as there is in the state,” Mangum said. “He is going to be a weapon, as far as being able to flip the field.”
Wayne County shifted regions, leaving behind Region 3-5A, which featured the likes of Laurel, West Jones High School, South Jones High School and Brookhaven High School, and moving over to Region 4-5A, which offers its own set of challenges with the likes of Picayune and Hattiesburg High School.
“There’re new challenges going to Region 4,” Mangum said. “There’re some similarities from Region 3. There’re are some really talented teams in Region 4, but the biggest difference is that, offensively, you’ve got your teams like your Hattiesburgs and Long Beachs that are spread teams, and then you’ve got your power-run teams, like your Picayunes, your Stones, your Pearl River Centrals.
“So, you’ve got a little different flavor each week, as far as what you’ve got to load up and stop. One week, you’re going have to load up and rush the passer, and then the next week, you’re going to have to crowd the line of scrimmage and stop the run.”
And Mangum didn’t back off the non-region schedule, with early games against West Jones, Oak Grove High School, Jefferson Davis High School and Moss Point High School.
But tough schedules are part and parcel for a Wayne County program that as recently as 2015 hoisted a state championship trophy.
“This program, over time, has been successful, and maintaining that success and expectations are always tough,” Mangum said. “But there’s a lot of pride here, and success breeds success.
“You’re not going to play for a state championship every year because that’s tough in itself. But, being one of those programs, which we feel like we are, we feel like we’re one of the top 5A programs in the state.”
So do Chambers and his teammates.
“We think we can get to the finals, but everybody’s going to think that,” he said. “But, yeah, I think we can get there.”