Coming into summer football workouts, Jefferson Davis County High coach Lance Mancuso wasn't exactly sure just how the meshing of players of two former rival programs was going to work out.
As Mancuso's Jaguars prepare for their final game of the 2017 football season, one would suggest that the combination of the former Bassfield and Prentiss high school programs has worked out more than fine.
Jefferson Davis County will play for a Class 3A state championship at 11 a.m. Saturday morning when the Jaguars take on Yazoo County High School (14-0) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford.
JDC (14-1), which was formed when Bassfield and Prentiss merged schools, will be playing for a state crown in its first season of existence. Yazoo County (14-0), which won the Class 3A North State title with a 59-26 win over North Panola High School, has reached the state final for the first time as well.
"We're excited for the opportunity, just like them," Mancuso said. "It's really big. It's a different team and a 'first ever,' so I think it's something special."
Yazoo County coach Robert Dobbs said while the Panthers have created quite a stir this season, he's tried to stick the routine that has produced an unbeaten season so far.
"It's the most important game these kids will ever play Saturday, but we're just trying to keep everything as normal as possible," Dobbs said. "Overall, I mean, you don't know how the kids will respond, with the different atmosphere.
"But, we're just trying to tell the kids to relax. We know the emotions will be high in the first quarter until they calm down. I've just told them to relax, let's play our game, give everything you have on the field and let's see what happens."
Mancuso has been through the experience before, coaching Bassfield High School to a Class 2A crown in 2009 and then four consecutive 2A state championships from 2012-15 before coming up short in the South State title game last season.
Many of the former Bassfield players from the championship years also have been there, and Mancuso said coming up short of a fifth consecutive state crown in program's final year of existence sparked the former Yellowjackets this fall.
"Last year, getting beat in the South State and being denied that run has provided motivation," Mancuso said. "But this being the first time (for JDC), I think has really helped bring these guys together, given them a (goal) to accomplish."
Mancuso said evidence of how well the blending process has progressed through the fall was evident in the Jaguars' come-from-behind, 26-16 victory over Hazlehurst High School in the Class 2A South State championship game.
JDC trailed 16-0 at halftime but came out in the second half to hold the Indians scoreless while rallying for the win.
"To be able to take a group of kids from two different schools, and for them to fight and not give in, it really showed a lot of growth and a lot of maturity," Mancuso said.
Saturday morning's game will feature two teams that may be mirror images of one another, with both programs relying on a strong ground game on offense.
Yazoo County averages 297.2 rushing yards a game, with senior quarterback Kenny Gainwell and senior running backs Cherokee Edwards and Devarrio Sanders providing the jet fuel.
Gainwell has rushed for 1,791 yards and 32 touchdowns, Edwards 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns and Sanders 827 yards and 15 touchdowns. All are big-play threats, with averaging 10.6 yards a carry, Gainwell 9.5 yards a pop and Sanders 6.8 yards a carry.
"We like to run the ball and take advantage of the size that we have," Dobbs said. "We've been doing a good job with that all year, so we'll just line up and take whatever the defense give us and take it one game at a time.
"Our offensive line has been doing a tremendous job, and then to have those running backs with the skill sets to take it the distance at any given time, they've all been doing a tremendous job all year long."
Gainwell has attempted just 121 passes, completing 67 for 1,114 yards and 10 touchdowns with three interceptions. Senior Dontrell Green has been the top target with 577 yards and six touchdowns on 28 catches.
Jefferson Davis County also has featured a dominant running game, rushing for 352.1 yards a game.
Junior Jafharis McKines has run for 1,419 yards and 22 touchdowns, with senior Demazie Mikell running for 1,119 yards and 14 scores. Three other backs, sophomore Keyser Booth (787 yards, 12 touchdowns), junior James Washington (586 yards, five touchdowns) and senior Terry Bryant (373 yards, five touchdowns) also have been major backfield figures.
Sophomore quarterback Lyric Hall has attempted just 98 passes, completing 39 for 833 yards and seven touchdowns with two interceptions.
"They do a good job with what they do," Dobbs said. "They're not flashy. They're a double-wing team, they don't mind running downhill, running at you. They do a good job offensively.
"They're going to be well-coached. They play hard. They're going to be disciplined. We're looking forward to the challenge. It ought to be a good ballgame."