The Laurel High School football season came to an end Friday night at D.I. Patrick Stadium, with the Golden Tornadoes falling 33-22 to archrival Hattiesburg High School in the Class 5A South State title game.
But, as it has all season, Laurel did not go down without a fight.
"They've been so resilient," Laurel coach Todd Breland said. "They won't quit, they won't quit at any time. They're just a hard-nosed bunch of kids who like to work and roll their sleeves up and take everything thrown at them, good or bad."
Laurel split the first four games of a harsh, non-region schedule, dropping a down-to-the-wire decision to Hattiesburg in the annual "Lil' Brown Jug Game" and falling to an Oak Grove High School team that decimated any team its path for the first month of the football season.
But Laurel also went on the road to defeat an athletic Jackson Callaway High School team and took down a Petal High School squad that reached the Class 6A South State semifinals.
The Golden Tornadoes opened Region 3-5A play by splitting its four games, absorbing tough, close losses at the hands of Brookhaven and West Jones high schools.
But Laurel closed out its regular-season schedule with three, consecutive, lop-sided wins and then bowed up in the playoffs to rally past a two-loss Picayune High School team on the road before avenging itself against Brookhaven in a Class 5A South State semifinal game.
That sent Laurel into the South State title game for the fifth consecutive year.
Friday night, with Hattiesburg having trouble getting out of its own way with penalties and less-than-stellar execution, Laurel dominated the first quarter.
Junior running back Zias Perryman plowed time and again through the Tigers' defense, and twice, the Golden Tornadoes drove inside the Hattiesburg 20-yard line. But Laurel lost a fumble on an opening drive that reached the Tigers' 18 and then had to settle for senior Juan Lechuga's 28-yard field goal on the final play of the quarter after getting to the 11-yard line.
After that, Hattiesburg settled in, and scored twice in the second quarter for a 12-3 halftime lead.
The Tigers appeared ready to pad their lead, but Laurel recovered a fumble in their end zone to thwart the opening drive of the second half. Then, after Hattiesburg bumped their lead to 20-3, the Tigers appeared set to break the game open, driving to the Golden Tornadoes' 2-yard line.
But again, Laurel came up with a fumble in its end zone, and then turned around and went 80 yards to chop Hattiesburg's lead in half, 20-10, on Perryman's 3-yard run, after three quarters.
But Hattiesburg's potent offense remained in high gear. The Tigers' scored twice in the fourth quarter, and though Laurel answered each time, they never could cut the lead under two scores.
The Golden Tornadoes never quit, though, scoring with 1:07 left in the game to get within 11 points, and then recovering an on-side kick. But any slim hopes of pulling off another playoff comeback died on three incomplete passes with 24 seconds to play at the Hattiesburg 19-yard line.
"I don't even know what to say," said Perryman, who slashed and crashed his way through the Tigers for 217 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. "It was a great football game."
Junior quarterback Sinclair Ulmer completed 8-of-21 passes for 112 yards and threw a pair of touchdowns to senior Juan Nelson. The Golden Tornadoes ran for 283 yards, finishing with 295 yards total offense.
Hattiesburg (14-0) won a South State title for the first time since 1998, taking down Laurel (9-5) in the playoffs for the first time in three years. The Tigers will meet West Point High School (14-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford in the Class 5A title game.
"They did a great job," Breland said. "(HHS coach) Tony (Vance) has done a very good job and had them ready (Friday). I wish them luck next week."
But Breland said he was proud of a team that grew during the regular-season to become its usual force by season's end.
"Our kids never quit all night long," Breland said. "They kept fighting, kind of like we always do. We just kept plugging and plugging.
"I'm proud of these kids, proud of where they came from and proud of where they are now. Nobody gave us a chance in the world to be here. They proved a lot of people wrong and they'll be better men for the rest of their lives for what they did this year."