When the Horn Lake seniors were freshmen, the Eagles were coming off a 2-10 season. Before that, they were 9-24 in Brad Boyette’s first three seasons as head coach at the school. As the seniors have gotten older, the Horn Lake Eagles have gotten better.
As sophomores, Horn Lake went 9-3 but missed out on the playoffs, then as juniors in 2017, it put together another 9-3 season with a second-round appearance. Now, the Horn Lake Eagles have a perfect 14-0 record this season and they’ll play Oak Grove for the 6A State Championship Friday.
In Horn Lake's history, it had only made the playoff three other times prior to this season.
“We knew this group of seniors was talented, and we’d have a chance to be at least a playoff team,” Boyette said. “They’ve bought in as a group and each year have raised the bar a little bit. The offseason program, the summer workouts and everything, it’s a culmination of everything and how they’ve handled it.”
Friday will be Horn Lake’s first-ever state championship appearance, too. Even though Horn Lake had a highly-touted team entering the season, Boyette wasn’t going to get ahead of himself.
“I don’t know if you ever expect to play for a state championship,” he said. “I think when you start looking that far ahead, you lose track of what you’re doing that day. We approach every day for what it is and what we needed to do to get better. Let’s prepare for our next opponent and let’s be 1-0 this week.”
Horn Lake has seemingly cruised through its schedule. It averaged nearly 46 points per game and only allowed eight in its first seven games. A close 28-17 win over Oxford in mid-October was Horn Lake’s highest hurdle to clear, but then it won by at least 19 points in the next five games before last week’s 16-7 win over Madison Central.
As an offense, the Eagles average 113 passing yards and 258 rushing yards per game, and according to Boyette, the team has hit stretches of lulls in the 14-game season leading up to Friday’s 6A State Championship game.
Senior Raydarius Jones leads the Horn Lake offense with 1,496 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, and 1,075 rushing yards and 13 scores on 114 carries. He’s only rushed for more than 100 yards in two games this season, but Jones is averaging more than 9 yards a carry when he does take off.
“He’s getting us in the plays, making good decisions and his attitude and competitiveness on the field makes us go,” Boyette said.
Defensively is where Horn Lake makes its mark, though. When it comes to consistency, Boyette acknowledges his offense has had some down moments, but his defense has played lights out all season.
Of course, senior Nakobe Dean leads the Eagles on that side of the ball, but Horn Lake is more on defense than just the No. 1 linebacker in the state. Senior Omar Pew, Doron Smith and A.J. Bullard all have 15 or more tackles for loss, while Dean leads the group with 20. Bullard leads Horn Lake with eight sacks, and Smith, Pew and Dean have added seven, seven and six, respectively.
Standing at 5-foot-10, 230 pounds, Pew is an undersized defensive lineman, but that hasn’t stopped the senior from wreaking havoc in opponents’ backfields this season.
“Omar Pew, everybody looks at him and says no way this kid is playing 6A football,” Boyette said. “He plays nose for us and he’s had a tremendous season. He had a division game this year where he had nine tackles for a loss in a game. I’ve never had a player do anything like that.”
All eyes will be on Dean, though. The senior linebacker already has the attention of high-profile Division I schools, like Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and LSU, and even more will be watching Friday night. He’s also ranked the No. 1 player in Mississippi by Rivals.com and 32nd in the country.
The 6-foot-1 senior linebacker has 127 total tackles and three interceptions to go along with his outstanding tackles for loss and sacks statistics. He’s also a standout in the classroom, and Boyette said Dean will most likely be in the Top 5 of his graduating class.
“He is the guy in the locker room that makes everything go,” Boyette said. “He has a tremendous will to win, he’s going to give you everything he’s got whether it’s in practice, in the weight room or in the game. His demeanor, he does the same thing in his chemistry class. He wants to be the very best he can be in whatever setting he’s in.”