WEST POINT, Miss., - Saturday night was a dream matchup for high school football fans in the Magnolia State.
The back-to-back defending Class 6A State Champion South Panola traveled to take on back-to-back defending Class 5A State Champion West Point in front of an overflowing capacity crowd of 7,000-plus fans at Hamblin Stadium.
Neither team disappointed in the back and forth battle but it was the Tigers who pulled away late with three fourth quarter touchdowns to claim a 37-17 victory.
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"I knew we would play hard and fight," said South Panola head coach Lance Pogue. "With young guys sometimes it's a benefit because sometimes they don't understand all this. Going into the first game you're worried about turnovers and penalties and we didn't really have a whole lot of that. It really made a difference. We forced them into some in the second half."
South Panola, the No. 8 program in the RivalsHigh100, gained 296 yards of offense on the night with 193 coming on the ground and another 103 through the air.
Marcus Dixon paved the way for the Tigers rushing attack gaining 99 yards on 22 carries and scored three touchdowns. Junior quarterback Tevis Flowers completed 5-of-9 passing for 103 yards and a touchdown while his favorite target, junior Ron Taylor, hauled in three passes for 43 yards and a score.
"Marcus Dixon is a senior tailback who's really never played before and had a great night," Pogue said. "We played probably four running backs. Tevis Flowers at quarterback in his first time to play made some big plays for us. Our receivers made some big plays. We don't have (Nick) Brassell and those kinds of guys but we've got some tall, rangy guys."
Another South Panola standout on both sides of the ball was Antonio Connor. The junior lined up at quarterback, running back and safety for the Tigers and finished with 13 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown despite missing most of the second half with bruised ribs.
"Overall I think I did pretty good," Connor said. "Even though I went down, I'm really thankful for the team getting the job done without me."
South Panola wasted little time getting on the board on their first possession of the game. The Tigers marched 63 yards in seven plays including one fourth down conversion. Dixon rushed in from 9-yards out on a dive and Clayton Sibley booted the extra point for an early 7-0 lead.
West Point attempted to answer on the ensuing drive moving down to the 3-yard line following a 42-yard run by quarterback Dequinten Spraggins before having to settle for a 14-yard field goal attempt. However Eric Lemus' try was no good keeping the Green Wave off the board.
West Point was able to tie the game with just under four minutes to go in the first half. A 29-yard scamper by Spraggins would set up a 12-yard touchdown toss to fullback Mario Virges.
But it would take the Tigers only five plays to regain their advantage. A 46-yard completion from Flowers to Deandrea Harris would set up a 27-yard touchdown run by Connor with 1:55 to go before halftime.
The lead would not stand for long as Tez Lane took the ensuing kickoff 89-yards back to the house tying the game back up for West Point.
However the Tigers were able to add another score with 27-seconds remaining before intermission as Flowers found Taylor on a 30-yard scoring strike to take a 21-14 lead into the locker room.
South Panola padded their lead on an extended drive to begin the third quarter. The Tigers orchestrated a 15-play drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes off the clock resulting in a 27-yard field goal by Sibley.
Later in the quarter, West Point's Aeries Wiliams tore off a 52-yard run but was tripped up at the 1-yard line. The Tigers defense stood strong moving the West Point offense backwards from there and forcing Lemus to boot a 34-yard field goal pulling the Green Wave within 24-17.
But two costly turnovers late in the fourth quarter would allow South Panola to pull away for good. Lane attempted a halfback pass but was picked off by Lindsey Dashawn with a diving grab at the 35-yard line.
That would setup at 7-yard touchdown run by Dixon four plays later.
A Green Wave fumble two plays later was recovered by South Panola linebacker Kieddrick Flowers at the 19-yard line. Dixon would punch in his third touchdown of the evening two plays later from 6-yards out to end the scoring.
West Point finished the game with 163 yards of offense with 143 coming on the ground.
"Yeah we turned the ball over a couple of times and lined up not like we're supposed to on defense a couple of times but not one time did our guys not play hard," said Green Wave head coach Chris Chambless. "They hustled everywhere and did what they are supposed to do. When you go into battle that's the kind of kids you want to go with- guys who are going to give you 100-percent."
Williams led the West Point ground game with 67 yards on seven carries while Spraggins added 62 yards on 11 attempts. Spraggins also completed 2-of-5 passing for 20 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
"We didn't back down," Chambless said. "We played our tails off and stuck our head in there. I'll take these guys to battle with me any day, anywhere and anytime."