Stringer, MS - Both Lumberton High School coach Zach Jones and Stringer High School coach John Brown insist that their respective football teams are approaching Friday night's Region 4-1A showdown as they would any other game.
For the supporters of each school, probably not so much.
In Stringer, memories likely are short and feelings still a bit frayed recalling Lumberton's 34-14 regular-season victory that gave the Panthers the 2016 region title, followed up by a 66-14 thrashing of the Red Devils in the second round of the Class 1A state playoffs.
In both towns, with Stringer and Lumberton returning a bevy of their key players from last year, the game likely was circled on the calendar as one of the key games in defending their region championship.
"I think you could say that, yes," Brown said of the expectations for the game among the fans of both schools. "But, we both had to play well for it to get to this point."
Indeed, and as it has turned out, both teams have rewarded their fans with seasons of excellence, setting up the winner-take-the-crown contest at 6 p.m. Friday in Stringer.
"This is for all the marbles," Jones said. "It's on our wall, one of our goals, to win a (region) championship. That's big to us.
"Both us know that no matter what, we'll be home for the first round of the playoffs, and that's important, too. But this game, this game's important."
Stringer (9-1, 4-0 Region 4-1A) dropped an Aug. 17 season opener at Bay Springs High School. The Red Devils have not lost since.
"They've gotten better every week," Jones said. "They've got a group of kids who played a lot last year, and now they're a year bigger and a year faster and a year stronger."
Junior running back Anthony Thomas has been a two-way standout for the Red Devils. Thomas has rushed for 1,295 yards and 18 touchdowns as well as three, two-point conversions. He also has caught 16 passes for 269 yards and four more scores and taken three punts back for touchdowns.
Thomas has 74 tackles on the season, leading the team with eight tackles for loss, including two sacks. He also had intercepted two passes and recovered a pair of fumbles.
But Thomas is part of a nucleus of players who have carried the Red Devils.
Junior quarterback Cayleb Dyess has completed 67-of-126 passes for 1,375 yards and 19 touchdowns with six interceptions. He ranks second on the team with 222 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Sophomore Cooper Rogers also has contributed to the ground game, with 208 yards and three touchdowns on just 30 carries.
Senior receiver Reece Barber has 29 catches for 769 yards and seven touchdowns and junior Keyshaun Dease has 10 catches for 236 yards and four scores.
Junior linebacker R.J. Holifield tops Stringer with 88 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss, with three fumble recoveries and three sacks. Junior noseguard Devin May has made 83 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss, with two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Dyess leads the team with three interceptions.
"We've got a big junior class, and a lot of them had to play when they were freshmen, so they got beat up for a couple years," Brown said. "Now, this is the second year on our offensive system and our defensive system, so they're not having to learn a whole bunch of stuff over and over.
"And we've got a bunch who challenge each other. We're not made up of just one star. A lot of people like to think that Anthony Thomas is our stud, which he is, but we've got a bunch of guys."
Lumberton (7-2, 4-0) fell at Heidelberg High School on Sept. 1 and was ambushed at Taylorsville High School on Oct. 6. Otherwise, the Panthers have won gritty or in routs.
Freshman Robert Henry has come on to lead Lumberton's running game. In an oft-crowded backfield, Henry leads the pack with 695 yards and eight touchdowns along with three, two-point conversion runs.
"He's come on and has gotten better as the year has gone along," Jones said. "I've been very pleased with him."
Junior linebacker/running back Davion Edwards has run for 525 yards and five score with a pair of two-point conversions, junior running back Rodriqus Coleman has 249 yards and two touchdowns with two, two-point conversion runs and junior quarterback Jared Tribett has rushed for 208 yards and five touchdowns along with three, two-point conversions.
Tribett has completed 97-of-199 passes for 1,293 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Senior Donnell Buckner has 36 catches for 512 yards and five touchdowns with two, two-point receptions and junior Rickey Thomas has 22 grabs for 388 yards and four scores.
Edwards leads the team with 88 tackles and has recovered three fumbles, senior Dakota Walters has 60 tackles, including 10 for loss, with a forced fumble and blocked punt and senior defensive end Ahmad Dalton has 77 tackles and a blocked punt.
Sophomore Jayson Buckley leads the Panthers with three interceptions and also has forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.
Brown knows exactly what Lumberton will bring to town Friday night. He was the Panthers' defensive coordinator when they won back-to-back state championships in 2004-05.
"They always have players in Lumberton," Brown said.
Both teams have dominated region play.
The Red Devils have averaged 46.3 points a game and allowed 20 points a game in Region 4-1A play. Their closest games have come in a six-point win over Resurrection Catholic High School and a 16-point win over East Marion High School.
The Panthers have scored 38 points a game and allowed 16.3 points a game in region. Two four-point wins, 38-34 win over Resurrection Catholic and 26-22 over East Marion, have been the closest scrapes.
Both teams have one more regular-season game left on Nov. 3, with Lumberton hosting Salem High School and Stringer traveling to Sacred Heart High School in Hattiesburg.
But Friday, the two play for a regular-season championship.
"It's going to be a big game, but we'll approach just like any other game," Jones said. "If we go up there and take care of us, I'll take our chances."