PETAL, Miss. (WDAM) _ The handshake was firm, the jacket cuff a little damp from having to wipe his eyes after a stream of hugs from fans, friends and family Friday night.
Oak Grove High School football coach Drew Causey needed one more moment to brush one last tear aside before turning to the knot of cameras, phones and recorders waiting for his reaction to his Warriors’ 35-28 victory over Petal High School in the Class 6A South State final.
“This one was a little more intense, a little more emotion in it,” Causey said. “Both teams played their hearts out.”
The victory, Oak Grove’s eighth in a row, not only avenged a regular-season loss to its archrival but sent the Warriors into the Class 6A state championship game for a second consecutive season.
Oak Grove (11-3) will meet North State champion Oxford High School at 7 p.m. Friday at M.M. Roberts Stadium on the University of Southern Mississippi.
“It feels awesome,” Causey said. “I don’t think there was anybody who thought we could get back here.
“But I think everybody might know that we’re a little bit better now than we were earlier in the season.”
Oak Grove played its typical stout non-region schedule, winning the first three before dropping a 10-3 decision to New Orleans-area perennial football power, Archbishop Rummel High School.
Consecutive region losses against George County High School and Petal left the Warriors at 3-3 and, in many minds, in dire straits of reaching the playoffs and defending its South State crown.
While the spotlight shifted to Petal, who eventually ran the Region 3-6A table to earn top seed, Oak Grove righted its ship behind an offense that really hit stride midseason under first-year starting quarterback Damon Stewart and a defense that has played better than advertised all season.
“It’s crazy, just surreal,” Stewart said. “Just a crazy feeling I still can’t believe it.”
Stewart said he’d taken some heat after the Warriors dropped a lightning-delayed 21-7 decision to Petal on Oct. 4.
But all the alleged murmurs did was steel Stewart’s will, breathing still more fire into a fiery competitor.
“I’ve been doubted on, talked upon, since the first (Petal game),” Stewart said. “So, I came in here, we came in here, to their house, ad we made a statement.
“We made a statement.”
Stewart completed 14-of-19 passes for 251 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. He also rushed 11 times for 36 yards.
“They did a good job, they really did,” Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. “But I really thought it was more about us. I thought our kids competed well. We just came up a bit short (Friday).”
The see-saw game started with Petal grabbing a 7-0 lead two plays after Oak Grove turned over the opening possession of the game on downs.
Senior running back Micah McGowan slipped through a crease in the middle and was gone, going 49 yards with 8:09 to play in the first quarter.
Oak Grove went 70 yards in four plays. A 33-yard pass from Stewart to junior Jordan Coleman opened the drive and another Stewart-Coleman hookup, this one from 29 yards, tied up the game.
A bad snap recovered by Oak Grove set up the Warriors at the Petal 29-yard line.
After two incompletions and an offsides penalty on the Panthers, Stewart found senior Brandon Hayes with a 24-yard touchdown pass for a 14-7 lead with 3:15 left in the half.
Oak Grove forced the Panthers to punt and seemed poised to carry that touchdown lead into the halftime locker room.
But Petal senior outside linebacker Sam Marlowe recovered a fumble at the Oak Grove 10-yard line, and on the last play of the half, sophomore Nate Jones kicked a 28-yard field goal to get the Panthers within 14-10 at the break.
After a 66-yard kickoff return by senior Rashad Handford opened the second half, the Panthers got another field goal from Jones, a 34-yarder, to pull within 14-13.
Oak Grove into Petal territory, but Stewart was intercepted at the goal line by junior Jonathan Harris to end the threat.
After the Panthers stalled at their own 43-yard line, Boyles reached into his bag of tricks, and pulled off a fake punt, with senior punter Alex Dean teaming with junior Micah Cherry on a 57-yard touchdown pass.
McGowan banged in a 2-point conversion run and Petal had taken a 21-14 lead by scoring the first 11 points of the second half.
Back came Oak Grove, moving 67 yards and scoring on a 12-yard pass from Stewart to senior Tavion Smith to tie the game.
Moments later, Petal senior quarterback DeCarlos Nicholson threw an interception that junior outside linebacker Zach Little returned 38 yards for a touchdown and a 28-21 Oak Grove lead.
“It was right there,” Little said, pointing at his stomach. “I saw the end zone and tried to take one all the way back. It was pretty cool.”
Petal (12-2) wasn’t through, using a personal foul on a chip kickoff to move from the Oak Grove 39-yard line to the end zone in eight plays. McGowan, who rushed for 136 yards on 23 carries, stepped in from the 1-yard line for his second touchdown of the game to knot the game 28-28 with 7 minutes to play.
The Warriors responded immediately, moving 68 yards in six plays.
Senior running back Nick Milsap broke free on a 39-yard run and facing a fourth-and-3 three plays later, Stewart found Smith with a 20-yard dart for the go-ahead touchdown.
Smith had five catches for 55 yards and two scores, Coleman had four catches for 107 yards and a touchdown and Hayes had three grabs for 41 yards and a touchdown. Senior Eric Robinson had two catches for 48 yards.
Petal had one more chance, taking over with 3:47 to play, but after reaching the Oak Grove 28-yard line, a bad snap soared waaaay over Nicholson’s outstretched hands. After being knocked about for a bit, Oak Grove recovered the ball at the Petal 35-yard line.
One first down later, the defending Class 6A South State champion had done just that, defended its title, and was headed to its sixth state championship game since 2003.
“This is what we’ve been working on all summer, so we’re glad to be back,” said Milsap, who finished 107 yards rushing on carries. “We feel wonderful. I’m having trouble finding words for how good this feels to come back.
“Everybody doubted us. Nobody thought we would make it this far… We had a lot to prove, and we came out, and we proved it.”