By Ruthie Robison The Webster Progress-Times
The Eupora Eagles are ready to give everything they have one last time on the gridiron this Friday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson.
“I’m proud for these kids,” said Eupora head coach Junior Graham. “Last year we were 6-5 and right now we’re 14-1 with a chance to play for the gold ball.”
However, reaching the pinnacle of Mississippi high school football was no easy feat. The Eagles had to square off with the Bruce Trojans last Friday night at Wofford Field for the MHSAA Class 2A North Half title.
“We knew coming in we weren’t going to be able to drive the ball effectively on (Bruce),” Graham said.
So the Eagles had to make big plays to gain momentum.
Senior wide receiver and Ole Miss commit Derrick Jones delivered the first big punch for Eupora. On the first play of the game, Jones returned the kickoff 80 yards. Justin Lewis followed with the extra point. The Eagles had gained an early 7-0 lead with 11:36 left in the first quarter.
The Trojans began moving the ball quickly with their first possession of the game. Zay Armstrong capped the drive with a run from one-yard out. After a failed extra point attempt, the Eagles held a one-point advantage.
The Eagles began building a strong trek down the field into Bruce territory. However, Rashad Turner picked off a Eupora pass at the Trojan five and returned it 95 yards. Bruce had finally taken the lead away from Eupora with 1:32 left in the first quarter.
The next Eagle possession was short lived. The Bruce momentum carried over into the second quarter as Davis Brown added more points to the board for the Trojans with a one-yard keeper into the end zone.
Eupora answered back driving the ball to the Bruce five. From there sophomore quarterback Trey Pittman punched it in to cut away at the Trojan lead, 18-13.
The Trojans increased their lead over Eupora again before halftime with a 35-yard field goal, 21-13.
“Our guys have gone into halftime down several times this year, and they don’t hit that panic button,” Graham said. “They come out, and they play. And now they just won a North Half championship. They had every chance to quit, but they didn’t.”
The second half of the game was filled with big Eagle plays that would be enough to clinch the North Half championship.
The Trojans tried to increase their lead in the third quarter, but an interception by sophomore Rusty Johnson would halt their attempts. Johnson brought the ball to the Eupora 43, and the Eagle offense began moving it. Pittman found Jones with a 44-yard pass for a Eupora touchdown.
The Eagles scored again shortly with 10:11 left in the game. Pittman connected with Jones again with a 75-yard pass. This scoring play would give Eupora the lead, 25-21. “This is a great feeling,” said Jones. “I’m proud of my teammates. They came out and executed the game plan well.”
Less than a minute later senior fullback and middle linebacker Vandy Smith, made a big play for the Eagles on the defensive side of the ball. Smith intercepted a Trojan pass and returned it 25 yards. Eupora had gained a 10-point lead over Bruce.
The Trojans managed to score again for the last time in their 2012 season.
However with 5:51 remaining, the game still seemed that it could go either way.
Late in the fourth quarter, Bruce tried to rally.
Johnson ended it with his second interception of the game, and ensured a Eupora 31-28 victory.
“I’m so proud of that young man,” Graham said of Johnson. “The smallest man on the field made one of the biggest plays of the night. He is 5-foot-4 and everyone tries to pick on him. They tried to run a smash route on him at the end and he got over the top of it and made a play.”
Smith led the Eagle rushing attack with 10 carries for 66 yards. Lazerick Davis had 14 carries for 45 yards. Savon Daughtery had three carries for six yards.
Pittman was 10-18 through the air for 182 yards with two touchdowns.
Jones had five receptions for 142 yards with two touchdowns. Jamall Roby had four receptions for 34 yards while Davis had one reception for six yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, Smith had 10 stops with one interception returned for a touchdown. Markelle Eichelberger had eight stops while Patrick Marshall had six.
Jarquez McBride had five stops while Roby had five stops with one sack. Daughtery, Jones and Beau Smith had four stops each. Johnson had a pair of stops and two interceptions.
Graham, Jones, Smith, Superintendant Jack Treloar and Eupora High School Principal Laci Knight attended the 2012 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi Gridiron Classic news conference at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson on Monday, Nov. 26.
“The chips fell our way, we stayed healthy and lo and behold we’re here in Jackson playing for a state championship,” Graham said at the conference. “Our kids understand the daunting task ahead of us, but we’re excited.”
The Eagles will enter the Class 2A State championship matchup with a 14-1 overall record, division championship title and the North Half championship title.
Eupora will meet a tough opponent at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Bassfield Yellowjackets will line up opposite of the Eagles in Jackson. The Yellowjackets are undefeated this year holding a 15-0 overall record. Bassfield was the Region 8 champion and the South Half champion after their 17-14 win over East Marion.
Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. this Friday.
Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium is located in Jackson across from UMC Medical Center. Tickets can be bought in advance for $12 from Eupora High School or at the stadium for $13. There will also be live broadcast coverage on Mississippi Public Broadcasting channels, ESPN3.com and playonsports.com. On-demand streaming will be available on playonsports.com as well.
“Somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose, but when you look back and reflect we’re all winners,” Graham said to all in attendance at the news conference.