SOSO, Miss. (WDAM) _ When Taylorsville High School makes the short trek over to West Jones High School Thursday night, it will not be be the first time the two schools have met on the football field.
It will just be the first time in a long time.
“We started the Taylorsville-West Jones match-up in ’93 and played them all the way up to ’04 or ’05,” Taylorsville coach Mitch Evans said. "Every year, we played them first game.
“Actually, the first time we played them was at (the University of Southern Mississippi’s football stadium) The Rock, 1993, and that was my first game to ever quarterback.”
And now, courtesy of COVID-19 and the unorthodox scheduling it has foisted upon high schools across the state, the two schools that sit some 16 miles from one another will renew that rivalry at 7 p.m.
Both teams have been sidelined.
West Jones (3-0) only returned to practice Tuesday after nearly two weeks of coronavirus quarantine.
“We just got 'em back and I would say (Tuesday) was average, at best,” West Jones coach Scott Pierson said. "I’m not taking anything away from my kids, but you don’t go 14 days. It’s not like riding a bike. We do have collisions out there.
“But at the same time, it’s the hand you’ve been dealt and you try to pick up where you’ve left off … We’ve got some bad habits from being off two weeks and I worry about conditioning and I worry about assignments.”
Taylorsville (4-0) picked up a forfeit win in its Region 5-2A opener when archrival Bay Springs High School had to quarantine last week.
“I like playing every week,” Evans said. "Game shape, game speed, it’s all different, and you don’t get to feel that, don’t get to experience that.
“I like playing, but it did give us a day or two to get prepared for what they’re doing.”
Both teams had an opening this week as well when schools in their respective regions decided back in the summer that they would not play this fall.
West Jones had scheduled a school that was more than a two-hour drive. Taylorsville also had committed, but then Pierson and Evans got to talking, and were able to get out of their initial commitments.
“I was looking into traveling and going, and he was looking into traveling and going, but then we decided, ‘Hey, we’re both right here. Why don’t we just go ahead and play?’”
So, a rivalry long dormant was remade, though at first glance, it may not seem like the fairest match-up.
West Jones is a consistent force in Class 5A football, the second-highest classification on the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s six-rung ladder.
The Tartars are an annual power in Class 2A, the second rung on the MHSAA’s ladder.
Those classifications are based on student enrollment, and West Jones has nearly double the student body of Taylorsville, sporting more than 1,300 students to 760-plus.
But Pierson said Taylorsville is not your typical small-school football team.
“Their skill players are as good as we’ll play all year,” Pierson said. “Their four wideouts, their running back and their quarterback, we won’t see anybody better than them.”
Taylorsville senior quarterback Ty Keyes, a Tulane University commitment, has completed 68.8 percent of his passes in the three games the Tartars have played, piling up 924 yards passing and nine touchdowns.
The next interception he throws will be his first of the season.
Senior receiver Tyrese Keyes has caught 18 passes for 487 yards and four touchdowns and also has returned a punt for a score.
Senior Arterious Miller has caught eight passes for 178 yards and three scores, while junior Cedrick Beavers has caught seven passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in two games.
Senior running back Jeff Pittman, who topped 200 yards rushing and scored four times in his last outing, is averaging 132.8 yards and two touchdowns a game. Ty Keyes has resorted to his legs just 11 times in three games, but has run for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns.
All told, the Tartars have averaged 559 yards total offense.
“This game is going to make us better because we’re fixin' to play somebody who can throw and catch better than just about anybody in the state, and I’m not knocking Starkville or South Panola or Clinton or West Jones,” Pierson said. “I’s very rare that you have that kind of talent on any team, let alone a 2A team.”
West Jones senior quarterback Alan Follis also has excelled this season, completing 57.1 percent of his passes for 856 yards and eight touchdowns with five interceptions.
“He’s a great decision-maker,” Evans said. "He can throw any ball on the field. His timing with the ball and his precision, where he puts it most of the time, is really good.
“What a lot of people don’t know is he’s a really good runner, and he runs the ball for them a lot. He’s elusive back there, hard to sack.”
Senior Tajrick Randolph has been Follis' favorite receiver, with 10 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Cedric Bender has provided big plays, with four catches for 148 yards and two scores.
West Jones has yet to get its running game to where Pierson would like it, averaging just 76 yards rushing a game. Senior Kentrel Pruitt has netted 96 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries.
But the Mustangs have been formidable on defense. They allowed just one touchdown in their first two games, then shut Petal High School out in the fourth quarter to pull out a 34-31 win.
In three games, opponents have averaged 13 points a game.
“They’ve got a dang good defense, one of the best defenses in the state,” Evans said.
Both teams are used to the spotlight. Taylorsville has played in the past three Class 2A state championship games, winning twice, including 2019. West Jones has played in the South State championship game the past two seasons, reaching the Class 5A state title game in 2018.
So, maybe Thursday’s once-in-a half-generation meeting will create some long-lasting memories for the players from both sides as it did for Evans that evening in 1993.
“That was pretty awesome, man,” said Evans, who led the Tartars to a pair of state titles under the guidance of then-coach Marcus Boyles.
“Nervous? Heck yeah, I was nervous. My first game, and Coach Boyles breathing down my neck. But we were fortunate enough to come out with a win, so it wasn’t too bad.”