Hattiesburg, Petal set to renew Leaf River Rivalry

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - One team is rebuilding after a run to the second round of the Class 6A football playoffs in 2017.

The other simply has reloaded reaching the Class 5A state championship game last December.

But expectations often go by the wayside in season-opening football games, especially in a game pitting cross-river rivals.

Petal and Hattiesburg high schools square off in the Leaf River Rivalry for a sixth consecutive season, and both teams come into D.I. Patrick Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday aiming to get the 2018 season off on the right foot.

"I think this team is going to be even better than last year," Hattiesburg senior quarterback Jarod Conner said. "This team, we're working even harder. We're pushing ourselves to go and try and finish our deal from last year."

That "deal" included an undefeated regular season, including a 43-37 road victory over Petal, and a 14-0 mark before falling to West Point High School in the Class 5A state championship game.

HHS won its first South State title since 1998, and HHS coach Tony Vance said the Tigers' tasty run capped by the bittersweet ending should help the returning veterans.

"It was a great learning experience for our guys, for our coaches," Vance said. "It's hard to get to the state championship and it's even harder to win one.

"But I think that's going to help us moving forward, the experience of playing on the biggest stage. There won't be a game in the regular season bigger than the one we played in last year."

Conner, a converted running back, flourished in Vance's offense last fall, accounting for more than 4,000 yards total offense and 53 touchdowns. Senior Drexlan Allen (613 yards rushing) will lead the running backs and senior Darius Ruffin (991 yards receiving) the receivers.

Petal, which finished second last year in the meatgrinder that is Region 3-6A, will not have luxury of a returning triggerman. Junior running back Michael McGowan and senior receiver Trent Williams are the leading returning skill players, though the Panthers also return three starting offensive linemen.

Junior DeCarlos Nicholson and sophomore Jeremiah Robinson have been competing for the starting quarterback role.

"Like every year with us, we've got to stay healthy," said veteran Petal coach Marcus Boyles. "At certain positions, we've got a good returning group with the guys we've got coming back. We're looking forward to seeing whet these new guys can bring who are going to be first-year starters.

"It's one thing to do it in practice or in seven-on-sevens, but it's another thing to do it on Friday nights when the lights are on."

Much of Petal's returning experience is on the defensive side of the ball.

"Actually, we have a real good team with a lot of athletes," Petal senior safety/linebacker Kobe Windham said. "We're not as big as we were last year, but defensive-wise, we've got the majority of our starters back, so we'll be really experienced

"On offense, we have a lot of our receivers back, but otherwise we're going to have a lot of guys without much experience who are going to have to step up this year."

Hattiesburg's defense was more adept at creating turnovers than shutting down quality offenses, and lost the services of departed senior safety Dexter Jordan and senior linebacker Will Robinson.

But the addition of transfer defensive end Jaren Handy and defensive back Hakeem Vance could be big additions for the Tigers.

Copyright WDAM 2018. All Rights Reserved.