Hattiesburg, West Point set for much-anticipated matchup

By CAMAL PETRO,

For both head coaches, Saturday’s 5A State Championship is nothing new.

Both Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance and West Point coach Chris Chambless have coached in multiple state championships. As head coaches, Vance was 1-1 while at Charleston and Chambless is 3-0 at the helm at West Point, including last season’s state title.

The Green Wave players played in last year’s state championship, but this is all new for the Hattiesburg players. Vance said his players would be ready to go, though.

“They’re focused on West Point and the job we have to do come Saturday night,” he said. “We expect them to be sharp mentally. There isn’t a lot of contact this time of year, so we work on fundamentals like tackling, ball security and turnovers. Most of it is mental this time of year.”

These teams have been on a collision course for most of the season. West Point was expected to make a return trip to the title game, but the Tigers started to gain attention once they beat Picayune in October. After the close win over the Maroon Tide, Hattiesburg won its next five games by an average of 34 points on the road to Oxford.

“I have no social media, I don’t read many articles in the newspapers, but you hear people talk, you hear coaches talk and I know the caliber the coaches and a lot of the schools in the south are. I knew (Hattiesburg) had a great chance going in,” Chambless said.

While Hattiesburg played a couple of close games, while blowing out every other team, West Point has made quick work of every opponent. The players wanted to make every game a “statement” win, according to Chambless, and the Green Wave have done that.

The most any team has scored was 14 points, and that happened three times this season to Columbus, Noxubee County and Lafayette. The Green Wave have also shutout four teams and held six over teams to less than 10 points.

An impressive feature about West Point’s defense is it doesn’t allow garbage points either. The players will play until the final whistle.

“That comes with leaving a legacy and expectations,” Hattiesburg offensive coordinator Ray Pickering said. “Those younger guys look up to the guys who lead. They set the tone and expectations, so when the younger guys get in, they don’t want to make a mistake.”

As a unit, West Point has 77 tackles for a loss, 25.5 sacks and 19 fumbles recoveries. Senior Terence Cherry, who is a Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game selection, leads the defense with 9.5 sacks, second on the team with 43 total tackles and fourth with nine tackles for a loss.

“It starts up front with them with the Cherry kid,” Vance said. “He’s an outstanding player. The defensive front and linebackers are really good and run to the football really well. They depend on the defensive front to control the line of scrimmage and free those linebackers up to make tackles.”

What’s special about this defense is it doesn’t blitz too often either.

“That just generally means, ‘We’re better than you,’” Pickering said. “Some teams have to come up with different schemes to slow this guy down or that guy down, but they don’t do that as much. That tells me they trust what they do.”

On offense, Mississippi State commit senior Marcus Murphy is the highlight of the group.

“He’s athletic and a dual-threat guy,” Hattiesburg defensive coordinator Jimmy Gandy said. “We know he can run the football and pass it some, and they just want to get him as many touches as they can.”

Murphy leads the team with 977 passing yards and nine touchdowns and 1,630 rushing yards with 27 scores. Senior Chris Calvert also has 1,000-plus yards on the ground, totaling 133 carries, 1,342 yards and 23 touchdowns.

“(Murphy) can do it all,” Vance said. “He’s the guy that makes them go. He’s definitely the best football player on their team. He’ll probably touch it 40, 50 times Saturday night, so we have to do a great job containing him.”

West Point will bring in junior quarterback Jake Chambless in passing situations, too. Chambless has 670 yards on 59 percent passing with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. West Point hasn’t thrown an interception all year either.

The two quarterbacks’ biggest target is Jason Brownlee, who has 928 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on 39 receptions.

Vance said when Chambless enters the game, it’s a tip for his defense that West Point will be passing the ball. While most teams know what’s coming, there hasn’t been a team to stop the Green Wave, even with the obvious tip.

“Usually he’s in on passing situations,” Vance said. “He will hand it off some, but probably 80 percent of the time, if he’s in, it’s a passing play. You know they’re going to throw the football, so now it comes to just stopping them. The Brownlee kid is probably as good of a receiver playing the ball in the air as I’ve seen.”

The 5A State Championship is set for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Ole Miss’ campus.