HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Five years ago, Tony Vance took the head football coaching at Hattiesburg High School, a place that he was told by many he would not be able to win.
Well, all Vance and his Tigers have done this football season is win.
And after Friday night's convincing 33-22 victory over Laurel High School at an overflowing D.I. Patrick Stadium in the Class 5A South State title game, Hattiesburg is one win away the biggest prize that a Mississippi high school football team can claim: a state championship.
Junior running back Drexlan Allen ran for three touchdowns and junior quarterback Jarod Conner threw for two more as the Tigers advanced to the state championship game for the first time since 1998.
"I'm so proud of these guys, man," an emotional Vance said moments after being congratulated by Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker. "Just an unbelievable feeling. They worked their (rears) off, starting five years ago.
"They believed when nobody else believed they could get this done. I took this job, and got phone calls from around the state, "Why would you do that? Why would you take the job in Hattiesburg? You can't win. Nobody's been able to win there since the '90s.' But I said, 'I believe in these kids and believe we can get the job done.'"
Hattiesburg (14-0) will meet defending Class 5A champion West Point High School at 7 p.m. Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford in the state title game.
"It's just so much, you can't explain this," Allen said. "
The Green Wave (14-0), the top-ranked team in the state by MaxPreps.com, defeated Olive Branch 39-6 Friday night to win the Class 5A North State crown.
"We appreciate it and we'll be behind you next week, too," Barker told Vance.
A crowd estimated between 9,500 and 10,000 people packed the stadium on either side and went eight to 10 people deep standing behind north end zone. The stands were jam-packed 45 minutes before kickoff to watch the long-time rivals play for the second time this season and the third consecutive year in the playoffs.
Laurel led 3-0 after one quarter on senior Juan Lechuga's 28-yard field goal.
But less than two minutes into the second quarter, Conner found senior D'Andre Humbles with a 36-yard touchdown pass for a 6-3 lead.
Laurel would never lead again.
With 3:34 left before halftime, Allen capped a 69-yard Hattiesburg drive with a 9-yard touchdown run for a 12-3 lead at the break.
Hattiesburg opened up a 20-3 lead less than five minutes into the thing quarter on Allen's 5-yard run, but the Golden Tornadoes (9-5) cut the lead in half after three quarters on junior Zias Perryman's 3-yard run.
But a kickoff return out to the 44-yard line set up a 56-yard drive that Conner finished off with an 8-yard touchdown pass to junior Darius Ruffin bumped the lead back to 26-10.
Laurel wasn't through. Junior quarterback Sinclair Ulmer teamed up with junior Jontarious Henderson on a 51-yard pass to the Tigers' 15-yard line, and two plays later, Ulmer hit senior Juan Nelson with a 12-yard touchdown pass to pull the Golden Tornadoes back within 26-16 with 8:07 to play.
But after recovering an onside kick, Hattiesburg rubbed 4 minutes, 23 seconds on the clock with a 47-yard scoring drive. Conner ran for 10 yards on a third-and-9 at Laurel's 17-yard line, and two plays later, Allen went over from the 1-yard line for 33-16 lead.
Perryman's 34-yard run set up Ulmer's 7-yard scoring pass to Nelson with 1:07 to play that got Laurel back within 11 points, but after the Golden Tornadoes recovered an on-side kick, the drive fizzled at Hattiesburg's 19-yard line after three consecutive completions.
"They played a great ballgame, but our kids never quit," Laurel coach Todd Breland said. "They kept fighting, just kind of like we always do, just keep plugging and plugging.
"But I'm proud of these kids and where they came from at the beginning of the year. Nobody gave them a chance in the world to be here. They proved a lot of people wrong, and they'll be better, many of them, for the rest of their lives for what they did this year."
Hattiesburg could have made it easier on itself, losing two fumbles at the goal line that cost the Tigers touchdowns and overcoming 12 penalties for minus 85 yards.
But in the end, Hattiesburg got past the Golden Tornadoes in the playoffs for the first time in three years and the Tigers are off to play for a state title for the first time in 19 years.
"The job's not finished," Vance said. "This is a special moment, but we understand the job's not done yet. We have to go finish the job."