By Myra Bean
JACKSON – "Everybody doubted us," said South Panola defensive tackle John Jerry, after the Tigers won their second straight 5A State Title Friday night. "We just came out, did what we had to do."
In an unprecedented move, the No. 8 nationally ranked Tigers finished back-to-back 15-0 seasons which culminated with back-to-back state championships.
The Tigers downed the Ocean Springs Greyhounds 39-21 Friday, Dec. 3.
This championship means much more to the team than just another ho-hum gold ball. After losing 18 starters from the 2003 championship team, there was doubt the team would be back in Jackson this year.
"It’s really a tribute to the kids and the coaches because nobody except Batesville believed we would be back down here," said South Panola principal Dr. Del Phillips. "People wouldn’t tell you that but really deep down they didn’t believe it, especially to go 15-0. I kept hearing at the first of the season 10-2, 9-3, you’re going to lose some.
"The kids when they had to step up, stepped up," Philllips continued. "That’s what people that hold that gold ball do."
The team leader, Derek Pegues, was "unbridled" by head coach Ricky Woods Friday night. Woods told Pegues he was taking the bridle off.
Pegues rushed for 244 yards and five touchdowns on runs of 32, 26, 69, 49 and 17 yards. Pegues broke a previously held record of four touchdowns set back in the 1993 5A championship by Warren Central’s Brian Darden.
South Panola took a precarious 13-7 lead into halftime. Ocean Springs scored with 4:19 left in the first half. The Greyhound defense left the Tiger offense shaking its head as halftime neared. The last part of the Tiger possession before halftime, Pegues threw two incomplete passes and was sacked.
The Tigers’ first touchdown was prefaced with an interception by linebacker Marcus Johnson, his second of the season, with 9:02 left on the first quarter clock. Johnson returned the ball to the Greyhound 33 yard line.
Three plays later Pegues scored on the 32 yard run with 7:46 left. Pegues faked the handoff, broke to the left and headed down the field for a touchdown. Russ Belk’s point after touchdown (PAT) gave the Tigers the 7-0 lead.
The Tiger defense had all its ducks in a row as the reverse plays of the Greyhounds fell flat as Johnson, Cedric Wright, Santarious Armstead, Jerry, Leroy Diggs and the rest of the defense stopped them in their tracks.
In the second quarter, Pegues’ 26 yard run came with 10:50 on the clock.
The Tiger defense forced the Grey-hounds to turn the ball over on downs when they could not convert a fourth down and one. The Tigers took over on the Grey-hound 36 yard line. In four plays, Pegues scored. The PAT failed.
In the second half of the game, the Tigers came out, made a statement and the Grey-hounds had to take notice.
"We had to step it up in the second half because they whipped us the last play going into half time on defense and all. We knew we had to come and play harder. If we didn’t, we would be walking off the field crying right now," Pegues said.
"They were a very good team," Pegues continued. "They were good on offense and defense. We just came out fired up and ready to play."
Jerry summed up the Greyhound offense.
"They just had a few little lucky plays but we held them down. Like Coach [Willis] Wright said earlier in the week, they’re too good of a team not to make some big plays. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t make big plays, they ain’t going to get that bling-bling," Jerry said with a big smile.
Pegues was determined to show who was boss of 5A football in the second half. With just seven seconds ticked off the clock, he took the first snap of the opening possession 69 yards for the touchdown. The closest defender was 10-yards behind him. Thus, "Smoke" so fits Pegues as his nickname.
These breakthroughs for Pegues in his remaining touchdowns and the 36-yard run by Jeramie Griffin which got the ball to the two yard line which led to Germichael Sanford’s two-yard touchdown with 2:00 left in the game are due mostly to the unsung heroes of the game, the offensive line.
The ‘hosses’, as they are so fondly known, caused cracks and holes that the Tiger backs could use to make the big runs.
Towards the end of the game, Woods substituted the starters for the backup team and Pegues traded his helmet for a hard hat.
He said, "It means we were hard at work."
Woods said, "It was just another great effort. This team has played well together all year. The kids played a fantastic ballgame."
South Panola had one turnover and caused two turnovers.
"So we run a one turnover margin," Woods said. "We told them we couldn’t turn the ball over, had to play aggressive and not give up the big play and we done all of it.
"So that’s a tribute to these kids, the schools, the teachers, administrators, coaches and the whole community because without a lot of support it’s not going to happen. We appreciate every fan in Batesville."
Woods said he does mostly paper work and it is the assistant coaches who get the players ready to play.
"I couldn’t do it without them. Those assistant coaches deserve all the credit, not me," Woods said.
Assistant coaches include Willis Wright, defensive coordinators; Trenell Edwards, Arnie Oakes, John Davis, Lucian King, Mark Weaver and Michael Fair.
King spoke of the defensive line.
"They have just done a great job," King said. "Coach Weaver does the ends and I do the tackles. They have just done a great job, everything I’ve asked them to. Tonight when they had to they stepped up and shut them down. I think that was a lot of change in the game when they stopped them down here, down deep when it was 21-7."
King said the defensive line brings a lot of excitement to the game.
"They are great to coach, do whatever you ask them to, and they work extra hard. They got their reward: back-to-back undefeated," he said.
Woods made his fifth straight appearance in the state championship. He made two in 2000 and 2001 with Ackerman and 2002, 2003 and 2004 with South Panola.
Some seniors had a few words to say about the season and the game.
Jeremy Williams said, "I feel good about it. That’s all I want to say. I hope I make it to the next level."
Santarious Armstead said this was not the best offense they had faced all season.
"They came out playing. We know we had to adjust to it. Shoot I know I had to because I am playing a big role in this thing and I had to play harder," Armstead said.
Brandon Burnett said the team had a great season.
"We came out to play hard every game," Burnett said. "We gave it all we had. It showed up in the end. We just came off 15-0 two years straight. Unbelievable feeling. No feeling like it in the world."
They finished the season 15-0 and have a 30 game win streak intact.
Woods and the Tigers are 44-1 since Woods took over the team for the 2002 season. The only blight is the 2002 state championship loss to Wayne County. Woods has also coached his 174th win.