Panthers, Tigers to renew Leaf River rivalry

By CAMAL PETRO,

PETAL – For the fourth straight season, the battle of Leaf River foes kicks off the high school football season on a Saturday night, pitting two programs with high expectations against each other.

When the two met last season, the Panthers won a marathon game, but they look a little different than they did last season, while the Tigers have brought back nearly everybody expect a couple of important pieces on both sides of the ball.

“The kids, they stay focused throughout the summer because they know they have a big opponent coming up, and we get tested right out of the gate,” Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. “I think that’s always a big positive. You make a lot of improvements from your first to second game, so when you play somebody really good like Hattiesburg, after the game Saturday night we’ll kind of know where we are as a team and what we did good and bad.

“I don’t think we’ll play anybody that is going to be any faster on defense than Hattiesburg. They can really fly around to the football.”

Hattiesburg has returned nearly every player who played on the line of scrimmage, both offense and defense, all but one linebacker, a couple of secondary players, tons of receivers and all of its running backs. The two biggest pieces missing are former quarterback Julian Conner and wide receiver Jordan Murphy.

Even though those two players are gone, Boyles still believes the Tigers have a scary offense.

“They’re explosive,” Boyles said. “I don’t think anything has changed. (Julian Conner) obviously made some big throws and ran the ball well, too. I think the same thing with (new Hattiesburg quarterback Jared Conner). To me, offensively, they’re very explosive and can score from anywhere on the field.”

Jared Conner has taken over the reins as the signal caller, and Tigers’ coach Tony Vance liked what he saw in last Friday’s jamboree.

“He did a lot of good things well, but there were some things he obviously has to improve on,” Vance said. “He did a good job managing the game, the play clock and all of that. All of those things, I thought he did really well and I was pleased with that.”

For Petal’s offense, a returning passing game makes Vance believe his team will see more passing in Saturday night’s contest. Senior Jordan Wilson returns as the team’s starting quarterback, and a deep receiving corps is back. Besides Tanner Estill, who played mostly quarterback until Wilson was moved into the starting role late in the season, and running back Stephon Huderson not returning, Petal brings back almost off of its production through the air.

Seniors Natorian and Nataurean Watts, Marquise Bridges and Nic Russell are the top four targets, while junior Trent Williams will push for playing time.

“I think they’re going to be explosive on offense,” Vance said. “They have some guys who can make some plays in the passing game. The quarterback does a really good job of throwing the football down the field and taking the short, underneath stuff. We know we’ll have our hands full slowing those guys down in the passing game, but you can’t fall asleep on the running game.”

The Panthers do have to find a solid running game, because they graduated their two best rushers from last season. Boyles has liked what he saw from his four options – Hunter Cripps, J’lin Jones, Semaj Silas and Micah Mcgowan – in the jamboree and preseason practice.

“They did well,” Boyles said. “We played a bunch of them, so we never got one guy settled, and we threw the ball a lot. But I’m definitely pleased with those guys. No Stephon Huderson, we knew that already, but we feel good about that group we have there.”

Vance said he’s saw some of those Petal backs play in the junior varsity game last season, so he knows they’re solid.

The monster matchup will take Saturday at 7 p.m. in Petal.