For a second consecutive football season, West Marion High School and Presbyterian Christian School will square off in the season-opening game for each school.
But neither team knows quite what to expect from not only the team across the field but the one arrayed along its own sideline.
PCS welcomes West Marion at 7 p.m. Thursday, one of two area prep games set a day before a near full, inaugural slate of high school games. Stringer High School will visit Bay Springs High School at 7 p.m. as well.
Like so many other high school teams across the Pine Belt, the Trojans and Bobcats head into the first week of a new football season with many more questions than answers.
In 2016, PCS recorded the most successful season in the program’s history, posting an unbeaten regular season before falling one step shy of playing for a Mississippi Association of Independent Schools AAAA state championship.
But the Bobcats lost the state’s all-time leading rusher Isaiah Woullard, four-year starting quarterback Luke Hudson and twin tackling machines in Rush and Justin Stewart.
“This year, we’re going in with a whole different type offense,” PCS coach Joey Hawkins. “We were downhill (rushing) with Isaiah for four years, and he carried the ball 30 times a game.
“Our young players work extremely hard, and these guys deserve a shot, so, we’re going to use four or five backs to take up those carries, and we’re hoping that we get a couple of big surprises. You never know.”
Nor does long-time West Marion coach Brad Duncan, who had the largest turnout for football in his 13-year tenure this season, but has just nine upperclassmen among his 46 players who have ever stepped onto a field on Friday night.
“We’ve got more kids out then we ever have, so that’s a plus,” Duncan said. “But only five seniors have seen live fire and only four juniors, so, we’re going to be kind of young.
“But there’s a great work ethic. We had as good a summer workout as we’ve had in a long time. So, they’re showing that they want to be good, but now we have to go out there with a buncha of freshmen and sophomores and make it happen.”
West Marion finished 8-4 last season, winning eight of nine games after dropping a 45-26 decision to the Bobcats to open 2016. The Trojans then lost their regular-season finale and went down in the opening round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s Class 3A playoffs.
That loss marked the end of quarterback Adrian Miller’s prolific single season under center. Miller, a former receiver, threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 37 touchdowns and rushed for 613 yards and 11 scores.
But Duncan said he’s like what he’s seen of Miller’s heir, Jeremiah Holder, a versatile athlete who played defensive end last year.
“He’s that guy where ever you put him,” Duncan said. “He’s a winner. He’s used to winning. He’s very competitive.”
And he has a proven commodity to turn around and hand the football to in Charles Lewis, who rushed for nearly 800 yards and eight touchdowns last year.
“They spread the ball around and then they’ve got a powerful running back, a 200-pound guy, who comes downhill,” Hawkins said. “So, they put four wide outside, but then you have to commit a lot to the box to try and stop this guy (Lewis).
“We’ve got our hands full.”
But PCS welcomes back its entire defensive front, and while Woullard is no longer suiting up for the Bobcats, the offensive line that sprung him for 2,700-plus yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior returns intact.
“Our offensive and defensive lines are back, so that’s going to help.”
After 37 years on the sidelines as a head coach and assistant, Hawkins has developed a theory about season openers.
“The first game comes down, always, to turnovers and special team,” Hawkins said. “That’s the key. We’ve got to win the special teams’ battle and we’ve got to have ball security. If we can do that, we’ll have a chance at the end of the game.”