It’s two stories that share so many similarities. From finally winning their first state championship in their third appearance, the hardship of going back to the state title game, the pressure as the expected favorite, the last-minute decision to win a championship, as well as the personal battles each coach faced.
Yet, Lumberton coach Zach Jones and Oak Grove’s Drew Causey finally put together state championship wins to share the honor as the PineBeltSPORTS Co-Coaches of the Year.
However, Jones and Causey each faced their fair share of adversity, especially during the state championship games with the chips on the table.
For Jones, that came with less than one minute left in the fourth quarter as Biggersville tied the game 14-14 in the 1A State Championship game. Despite facing a major momentum shift, Jones kept his sidelines calm and switched his offense to a spread. The poise and the scheme change ultimately paid off as the Panthers scored on an unlikely 42-yard touchdown pass.
“We were known as a running team, and we had probably relied on it more this year than we have in the past because we lost (wide receiver) K’nylan Willis and we didn’t have that big-play ability,” Jones said. “We practice, whether people believe this or not, spread and doubles seven to nine reps a day on team offense. We try to do it fast because if we do, it’ll be in that type of situation. Our kids never flinched.
“I wouldn’t change how it happened. I think it allowed our kids to show some character. We had just got punched in the gut and tied it. For our kids to have the poise and character to fight back and to do that was just phenomenal.”
As for Causey, the gamble was just as big. After scoring on a fourth and two and trailing 28-27 with seven seconds left in the game, Causey opted to win it all instead of go to overtime and called a two-point conversion.
Yet, the decision wasn’t a spur of the moment but rather a decision made at the start of the final drive.
“When they scored and kicked off, I told our offensive coaches that we were scoring and going for two,” Causey said. “I was already kind of thinking that we we’re not going to take this thing to overtime and put in our own hands. If we would have scored with a lot more time left, we probably would have kicked it.”
While Causey made that decision early on, the majority of the sideline knew as the Warriors lined up for the 2-point conversion Oak Grove had just 10 players on the field. Oxford, however, called a timeout, which played in Causey’s favor to not only avoid being undermanned but ultimately changing the eventual game-winning play.
“One of my wide receivers, I think, was the only guy on the team that didn’t know we were going for two,” Causey said. “That was our fault. We counted 11 because we counted both running backs. Luckily we had their timeout to burn, so I guess we used good clock management there.
“When they took their timeout, we actually ran the same play that they were going to run at first but just in a different formation.”
Each team got off to a different start of the year, with Oak Grove opening the season with a 52-30 win over Gulfport while Lumberton had a shocking 32-0 loss to Bay Springs. After Week 1, each team rolled and never blinked again until the South State championship games, which were on a cold and rainy night.
For Oak Grove, the Warriors’ rematch against Northwest Rankin was the only game they trailed in at the half. In fact, Causey believes that Oak Grove’s comeback was crucial for the state championship.
“This was the first time that we hosted (South State) since 2013,” Causey said. “I think everybody was expecting us to win. We were playing a team that we played just three weeks ago, and you know you are playing a really talented football team.
“That was the first time we trailed all season in the second half. I was really proud to see the way that your guys responded. When they took the lead, we took it right back. That was something to be proud of. When we were trailing in the second half of the state championship, we knew we could do what we did. That was a confidence builder in South State when we came out on top.”
Lumberton’s night was slightly different, when the Panthers turned in a 30-0 win over Simmons. However, Jones felt more pressure leading up to the South State championship game rather than the state championship simply because of the unknown in facing a Simmons team that played just four games. At the same time, due to COVID-19 cancellations, Lumberton played just one game in a four-week stretch.
“I was extremely worried about Simmons because I knew they were a really good football team,” Jones said. “They had only played a few games, and you could see them getting better as they played. You knew what you saw on film that you were going to see a better football team than that because they were getting experience under their belt. Plus (their) kids knew what they were walking into.
“I was worried because (I didn’t know) if we had enough time for us to gel and how much better they were going to be, but our kids came out and stepped it up another notch that night. The score was 30-0, but we beat a really good football team that night.”
While 2020 will be a year that most people will try to forget, the season will be one both coaches remember as each found themselves not just wanting to win for themselves but for their players and for their loved ones.
For Jones, whose dad died in the summer of 2019, the first thing he did was bring the 1A State Championship trophy to his father’s grave.
“I put a letter in my daddy’s pocket before they buried him that we were going to win the state championship,” Jones said. “For us to finally be able to do that was a little emotional, I’m not going to lie. Saturday morning I was at the graveyard. On a personal level, knowing that he was there smiling down was big for me.
“But it’s never about me. It’s about these kids in our program and being able to see our kids and coaches celebrate.”
As for Causey, the pain of seeing his son cry after each loss was a heavier burden than suffering the back-to-back losses as a coach. While he admits it was a great achievement, he believes the past two losing efforts brought greater life lessons.
“The one thing I was tired of seeing was our kids and everything upset, but I was tired of seeing my son upset after those ball games,” Causey said. “You have to be good, but you also have to have the ball bounce your way to win it all. I felt like that if we went out and we did the very we can and you walk off the field knowing you did your best, then at the end of the day, you are going to be happy. That’s something we always tell our kids.
“You try not to think (about losing before), but it does creep into your head sometimes. At the end of the day, it’s just a football game. When you are knocking at heaven, you can’t take those trophies with you, and you can’t take those losses with you either.”
Photos by Jesse Johnson