Pine Belt powers continue season-opening tradition

By CAMAL PETRO,

The Leaf River Rivalry has become the showcase of Mississippi High School football over the last couple of years, and all eyes will be on the Saturday night contest. With very few games being played on the same night, fans will pack D.I. Patrick Stadium and circle the field to watch the Panthers and Tigers tangle.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Saturday.

The Tigers are coming off a 5A State Championship game appearance while the Panthers are breaking in new players all over the field. The hype for this game has given the players motivation throughout the summer, but Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance says it doesn’t matter when the game is played, the hype will always be there.

“Anytime Hattiesburg and Petal get to together, I don’t think it matters when you play it,” Vance said. “Certainly, we know we’ll be better teams after the game is over. We’ll definitely be better and so will Petal. To play a top-caliber team and play one of the best-coached teams we’ll play all year, it’s definitely going to make us better.”

Hattiesburg has its quarterback ready to go. Senior Jarod Conner returns after earning PineBeltSPORTS Player of the Year honors with more than 4,000 yards of total offense and 50-plus touchdowns in 2017. The team has a handful of other players back in 2018 that has led to the high expectations in Hattiesburg, too.

Petal is a different story, however. It has to replace a quarterback, running back, multiple receivers and numerous others on defense. Petal head coach Marcus Boyles allowed a quarterback battle to play out in the preseason, but he named his starter Monday.

“DeCarlos Nicholson is our quarterback,” Boyles told PineBeltSPORTS. “He played well (in last week’s jamboree). He made some really good decisions with the ball. There were a couple of times where he either held it too long or made a bad decision, which led to a pick-6. But, other than that, I was really pleased with how he handled and how he managed the game. He made really good decisions for us.”

Despite a few turnovers in the jamboree, Vance easily sees Nicholson’s abilities.

“I saw a guy who’s very athletic and throws the ball extremely well,” he said. “I know they had three or four interceptions but a lot of those were just tipped balls or balls that should have been caught. It wasn’t bad throws by the quarterback, they were just mishaps, if you ask me. The guy is very capable with his legs and he can get the job done passing the ball as well.”

The Tigers’ offense called themselves the “automated touchdown machine” in 2017, and all signs point toward another big season from those players. On top of Conner’s running and passing ability, senior Drexlan Allen is back at running back and senior receiver Darius Ruffin had a 75-yard touchdown reception in last week’s jamboree.

While it’ll be a challenge to stop Hattiesburg outright, Boyles wants to limit the big plays.

“With Conner, you have to be great tacklers because he’s a great athlete, along with the running back and they have three or four good receivers,” Boyles said. “You have to limit the big plays, play great technique and from a defensive back standpoint, you have to limit the big pass plays with good technique.”

Defensively, Boyles said he couldn’t really take anything away from Hattiesburg’s jamboree. The Tigers played Tylertown last Friday, so they had to defend a two-tight, double-wing offense. Since Hattiesburg has had “speed and passion,” as Boyles puts it, on its defense in years prior, Boyles has no reason not to believe that won’t be the case in 2018.

For Vance, the fact that Petal has a lot of new players this season makes things a little interesting when preparing for the game.

“You wonder about some things,” Vance said. “You wonder what adjustments after their jamboree and what personnel changes they’ll make. Yeah, it makes you wonder and we have a lot of questions we won’t have answers to come kickoff Friday night.”

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