BASSFIELD, Miss. (WDAM) _ Lance Mancuso knows a thing or two _ or now, eight _ when it comes to winning state football championships in Mississippi.
But even Mancuso, who had won seven state titles at three different high schools coming into the 2019 football season, did not have a game plan or a blueprint to follow as the summer slipped into the fall.
“This year, started out like any other year, though I knew it was going to be (different) because it would be the first year I would go through football without my dad (Wayne),” Mancuso said. “But really I never thought anything much about it. It was just something that was on my mind.”
Then came the season.
Jefferson Davis County High School, two years removed from a state championship was an unsightly 2-4 with a roster that seemed reshuffled by injury nearly every week.
“You know, I remember at one point thinking, ‘Boy, I’m glad he isn’t here to see this disaster,’” Mancusco said.
The Class 3A Jaguars could count wins over Collins and Lawrence County high schools against four road losses. Three games were in-state, at Class 6A D’Iberville High School, Class 5A Hattiesburg High School and Class 2A South State champion Taylorsville High School, with the fourth across the state line at Jackson-Olin High School in Birmingham, Ala.
Two more losses were to follow, as Jefferson Davis County dropped its first two games in Region 8-2A play.
After six losses in their first eight games with just three to play, a losing season seemed a lock, a spot in the Class 3A playoffs a pipe dream.
“Not only six losses, but to be 0-2 in (region), it would have been very easy for those guys to start thinking about going to play basketball or getting ready to play another sport,” Mancuso said. “That’s what makes our young men a little different than in a lot of other places and I tell people all the time, I can’t explain it either.”
The inexplicable started with an 18-12 overtime victory at defending Class 3A South State champion, Seminary High School, on Oct. 18.
A week later, the Jaguars rallied for a two-point victory over Magee High School, and then indeed earned a spot in the Class 3A playoffs as the region’s third seed with a win over Tylertown High School.
After opening postseason play with a pair of one-sided victories, the Jaguars avenged earlier losses to West Marion and Columbia high schools, a pair of Region 8-A rivals with one loss between them.
The improbable run put the Jaguars in the Class 3A championship game for the second time in three years, and like every other team Mancuso has coached, once it got into a title game, it left with the trophy.
On Dec. 6, senior Keyser Booth ran for 184 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries and caught a 36-yard pass for a third score, as the Jaguars beat Noxubee County High School, 25-15.
“We went in at halftime and told (Mancuso) him we were going to shut this thing (down) and get the ‘W,’” said Booth, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Jefferson Davis County (10-6) had won eight consecutive games to become the first six-loss team to win a state crown since Mississippi created its current playoff format in the 1980s.
“I don’t know,” Mancuso said, laughing. “But I sure am glad we are the first.”
Prior to this December, a pair of Class 1A schools, Mount Olive High School (2009) and French Camp Academy (2013) had won titles in five-loss seasons.
Another quartet of schools _ Greene County (2003), Mount Olive (2010) and Noxubee County, twice (2015, 2017) _ had won titles with four losses.
But no team had ever bounced back from six losses to go all the way.
Not until 2019, and the Jefferson Davis County High School Jaguars.
“You know, when things kind of turned around, and I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe Dad is kind of looking down and testing me, the things he had taught me in the past to believe and to never get my head down,” Mancuso said.
For staying the course, keeping his team on track and overseeing one of the more remarkable turnarounds in the annals of Mississippi high school football, Mancuso was selected as WDAM-TV’s “Coach of the Year.”
“It just goes to show the type of character these young men have that once they start something, they’re going to finish it,” Mancuso said. “They’re going to finish it and they’re going to give you everything they’ve got to the last ballgame, the last whistle.”
That toughness, that mindset, is a two-way street, said University of Southern Mississippi linebacker Racheem Boothe, who played for Mancusco at Bassfield.
“He’s one of those old-school coaches, the hard-nosed type coaches, the blue-collar type coaches,” Boothe said. “That takes you a long way in football today. He’s disciplined his guys based off how tough you are.”
“Then, they also look at his history. They know he knows what he’s talking about.”
And indeed, the Jaguars continued to listen throughout a 2019 season that could have turned any number of which-a-ways.
Mancuso said the turnaround came in the overtime win against Seminary.
“If we lost that game, it was probably over,” Mancuso said. “If our kids would have gotten beat that week in overtime, we probably lose the next two weeks in a row against Magee and Tylertown.
“I don’t know what it was, but you could tell, it was just a totally different mindset of the kids after that win in overtime at Seminary.”
Perhaps a reawakening of the mindset of a champion, a team taught a tradition not only passed down year to year, but from generation to generation.
JDC was created by the 2017 merger of Bassfield and Prentiss high schools. Both sported proud athletics programs, with Bassfield having risen to become a statewide powerhouse in Class 2A football, winning five championships under Mancuso’s tutelage from 2009 to 2015.
The newly-minted Jaguars won their own title in that first year of consolidation, giving Mancuso his seventh state championship. In addition to the five Bassfield titles and JDC’s first, Mancuso had led Seminary to the 2003 title.
Number eight came on a Friday morning this December at M.M. Roberts Stadium, and the usually stoic Mancuso was a man of emotion as his team finished off its comeback season.
“As we kept going, it became more, ‘Wow, this could be special,’ and then there’s the pressure and everything else,” Mancuso said. “There was just this total buildup to it, and then to finally reach the pinnacle, it was like this moment, this rush of thoughts and emotions that were just kind of uncontrollable.”
Foremost among those thoughts was Wayne Mancuso, a man who never coached a game off football but had plenty of friends who did.
“All of his friends were coaches, so I grew up around football at a lot of different high schools,” Mancusco said. “Anytime we had gatherings, it was all about football, it was all about coaching.
“I can remember being 10 or 11 years old and listening to a lot of great, great coaches talking. I learned a lot.”
He learned even more important lessons from his father, about perseverance, about doing things the right way, about finishing a task, about giving one’s best effort.
USM defensive back Malik Shorts played for Bassfield and JDC’s first team. He said Mancuso instilled life-long values into any player willing to listen.
“He’s going to let his players know, whatever they do, whatever they put into the game or practice, there’s going to be a bigger outcome to it,” Shorts said. “(Kids), they buy into it and they want this feeling right here that we just had (winning a state title).
“He’s just a really good coach. He knows when it’s the right time to make the right play. You know he’s going to make a good play and make the right call.”
Mancuso said he hopes to be making the good plays and right calls for a long time.
“We’ve got a lot of support from our school board, so hopefully, we can get some top-notch facilities for our young men, which I think they truly deserve and have earned,” Mancuso said. “I would just like to see the program continue to grow and build.
“As long as I feel like I’m making a difference with these young men, and as long as I feel like they are responding to the things we’re teaching, then I’d like to see this continue forward.”