For the past three months, Hattiesburg High School football has followed a simple mantra during its weekly preparation for each upcoming opponent.
“When the game is over, we want to be 1-0 that week,” HHS coach Tony Vance has said on more than one occasion. “We tell our guys we want to be 1-0 every week.”
So far, that creed has worked to perfection, with the Tigers ripping off 11 consecutive victories on their way to a Region 4-5A championship and the first unbeaten regular-season at Hattiesburg since 1998.
Vance is emphasizing that approach even more so this week.
The Tigers (11-0), the top seed out of 4-5A, will host South Jones High School (8-4), the fourth seed from Region 3-5A, in an opening round Class 5A playoff game at 7 p.m. Friday at D.I. Patrick Stadium.
The Braves took care of business Friday, taking down Jackson Wingfield High School 47-14, to secure a postseason spot for the first time since 2009 and the first playoff berth in Coach Cory Reynolds’ four-year rebuilding project.
“Like I said after they played against Brookhaven (a 43-37 loss in overtime on Oct. 27), they are probably going to be the scariest four seed in the state,” Vance said. “I know what kind of job Coach Reynolds has done, and they will probably play us as hard as anyone we’ve played.”
Reynolds, who has guided the Braves to consecutive eight-win seasons, said his players are embracing the opportunity while well aware of the challenge awaiting them Friday night.
“Coach Vance has done a great job with them,” Reynolds said. “They do a very good job on offense and defense. On defense, they get 11 to the ball and make you make turnovers. Offensively, they’ve got a great scheme, running zone (blocking) in the running game and have a very good passing game. They make you pay of you don’t line up right.
“I think the biggest thing this year compared to years past is their special teams. They are very, very dangerous in their kicking game. They’re the total package and we’ll have our hands full. We’ll have to play our absolute best game to even have a chance with them.”
The Braves have been a fairly balanced offense, averaging about 40 yards more a game on the ground than through the air.
Senior running back Ricky Boleware and junior quarterback John Mitchell have spurred a ground game averaging about 186 yards a game, with Boleware running for 891 yards and nine touchdowns on 148 carries and Mitchell going for 826 yards and 13 touchdowns on 132 carries.
“Their running back is as good as we’ll see,” Vance said of Boleware. “He runs hard, runs tough, runs low to the ground, hard to bring down.”
Mitchell displayed his passing skills Friday, tossing five touchdown passes in South Jones’ win over Wingfield. For the season, Mitchell has completed 45.1 percent of his passes (101 of 224) for 1,717 yards and 23 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
Senior Shiwon Lovett, who has also has returned three of his six interceptions for touchdowns, tops the Braves with 712 yards and 11 touchdowns on 27 catches.
Senior Cody Locklear leads the team with 33 catches for 481 yards and seven scores. Senior tight end Kameron Flowers has 20 catches for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
“They’ve got guys on offense who can beat you,” Vance said. “Defensively, we’ll have to tackle well, cover well and try and create turnovers.”
Vance said junior Jarod Conner will be back behind center Friday after spending most of the past two games at running back, with senior D’Andre Humbles and junior Landon Rascoe getting game reps as the Tigers readied for the playoffs.
Conner, a dual threat passing and running the football, has completed 56.7 percent of his passes (102 of 180) for 1,760 yards and 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also has cracked 1,000 yards rushing, running for 1,020 yards and 21 touchdowns on 136 carries.
Senior Fabian Franklin has rushed for 543 yards and 12 touchdowns, while junior Drexlan Allen has run for 483 yards and another score.
Junior Darius Ruffin has caught a team-high 42 passes for 706 yards and three touchdowns, while senior Raheem Willis has 15 catches for 286 yards and five touchdowns and Humbles has 30 catches for 678 yards and eight touchdowns.
All told, the Tigers have averaged 419 yards total offense, including 220 yards rushing per outing.
While Reynolds acknowledged the large task looming, he said he offered his team some words from a recent ESPN “30 for 30” sports documentary on “The Nature Boy,” wrestler Ric Flair.
“That brought back some good childhood memories and one thing he always said was, ‘If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man,’” Reynolds said. “I told our kids, ‘Hey, we’re one of the best teams in the state right now, and we’ve got a great opportunity. But if you want to be considered one of the best, you have to play the best and beat the best.
“‘We’ve got a great opportunity right in front of us. Now, let’s go take care of it.’”
The winner of the Hattiesburg-South Jones game will meet the first-round playoff winner of West Jones-Stone in a Class 5A South State semifinal matchup.