LAUREL, Miss (WDAM) - When West Jones and Laurel high schools met during the regular football season, it was the Golden Tornadoes who made the big plays and took advantage of the Mustangs’ mistakes to earn a Region 3-5A victory.
Friday night at R.H. Watkins Stadium, West Jones flipped the script to not only gain a measure of revenge but reap an even bigger reward.
West Jones took advantage of five Laurel turnovers and a botched fake punt to build an early cushion and coast to a 42-21 victory.
The Mustangs (11-2) avenged their only on-field, regular-season loss, a 19-13 setback on Oct. 16 to the Golden Tornadoes on the same field. The Mustangs’ other loss was a COVID-19-related forfeit to South Jones High School.
“It was really big for us,” said senior defensive back Cedric Bender. “We were just trying to bounce back after what happened in the regular season.
“We were able to come out and execute like we were supposed to.”
More importantly, the victory sent the Mustangs into the Class 5A South State championship game for a third consecutive season.
The Mustangs will travel to the Gulf Coast Friday for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Pascagoula High School. The Panthers (7-4) earned their spot in the South State finale with a 35-32 overtime win Friday against Hattiesburg High School.
West Jones won South State in 2018 and played for a state crown Last year, the Mustangs fell to Picayune High School in the South State title game.
“This class has been together since they were sophomores, so this is their third trip,” West Jones coach Scott Pierson said. “They won one South State, lost one South State. They loved it when we won it, and they had a hard, hard time when we lost, so I think they’re on a mission to get back (to the state title game.”
“It’s like I’ve said, I really, really like our kids. It’s a good group of kids.”
West Jones senior running back Kentrel Pruitt rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns, while senior quarterback Alan Follis threw for a pair of scores and ran for a third.
But no play was bigger than the one Bender made early in the second quarter.
With West Jones holding a 7-6 lead, Laurel (7-4) started a drive late in the first quarter that eventually reached the Mustangs’ 4-yard line.
On first and goal, Laurel senior quarterback Dexter Scott rolled right and was leveled as he tried to turn the corner. The ball came loose, and Bender scooped up the fumble and sped 93 yards down the visitors’ sideline to give the Mustangs a 14-6 lead.
“That’s a 14-point swing,” Laurel coach Ryan Earnest said. “If that doesn’t happen, it’s probably a 21-21 game going into halftime and it’s a totally different ballgame.
“But that’s football.”
Instead, West Jones converted another Laurel fumble and a fake punt gone wrong into Follis’ 33-yard touchdown pass to junior Zyauawn Williams and the quarterback’s 19-yard scamper around right end for a 28-6 lead.
“When you get behind, especially early, against a good team,” Pierson said. “That makes it awfully tough.”
Laurel senior running back Xavier Evans, who ran for 120 yards and a 2-point conversion, pulled the Golden Tornadoes within 28-14 with less than minute in the first half.
But on the first play of the second half, Follis checked out of the original play and found senior Tajrick Randolph over the middle on a deep slant. After shaking off one tackle, Randolph zipped into the end zone to complete the 63-yard touchdown that gave West Jones a 35-14 lead.
Pruitt, who had scored on a 1-yard run in the first quarter one play after a 40-yard pass from Follis to Marlon Lindsey, finished off a 45-yard drive in the third quarter with a 29-yard touchdown run.
The short field was set up by a Laurel interception.
That made the score 42-14, and Scott’s 8-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter proved too little too late.
“We just turned it over too many times, and you can’t do that against a good football team,” Earnest said. “But I’m proud of the way our guys fought. They competed to the last whistle.
“Again, just one too many mistakes, here and there, but they had a lot to do with it. They had a great game plan and my hat’s off to them. They proved they’re one of the best teams in the state.”
Scott, who was playing just three days after the death of his father, completed 18-of-31 passes for 199 yards, including an 8-yard scoring toss to senior Ajaveon Hatten that gave Laurel a 6-0 lead on the first possession of the game.
Scott also ran for 51 yards
Hatten finished with seven catches for 87 yards. Senior Kanarius Johnson, who was shadowed by Bender all night, had four catches for 49 yards, while Evans had three grabs for 16 yards.
Follis completed 6-of-14 passes for 242 yards, including five completions of more than 30 yards. He also ran for 45 yards on 11 carries.
Randolph had two catches for 116 yards, while Lindsey came down with three grabs for 93 yards.