CLINTON – Herbert Davis lost in the championship game in each of his first three seasons as head football coach at MRA. The Patriots went 8-5 in his fourth season and were bounced in the semifinals. All four of those losses came to Jackson Prep, all four by large margins.
Davis was so discouraged he almost left MRA. In fact, he contemplated getting out of coaching altogether.
“I thought we weren’t really getting anywhere as a program,” Davis said. “I looked at another job. But the Good Lord told me to stay put, that I had something special here. Just keep working. He was right, as always.”
Something special indeed. MRA has won 47 games in the four years since then, the latest coming Saturday night in the form of a convincing 42-7 victory over Hartfield in the MAIS Class 6A state championship game at Mississippi College’s Robinson-Hale Stadium. It marked the Patriots third straight state title and fifth in program history.
“Three in a row. Wow!,” Davis said. “It’s pretty incredible. To look back four or five years ago and compare that to now where we’re sitting on a three-peat. It’s crazy. Never would’ve thought that would happen. It’s a testament to these kids. We work the heck out of them, but they take that challenge head on and here we are again. I can’t say enough about them. I’m proud of our kids, our program, and our school. It’s awesome. These seniors did something nobody in a MRA uniform has ever done before – win three in a row.”
Some say bad things come in threes. Apparently, good things can also come in threes. MRA’s three straight wins in the title game have come against three different opponents – Jackson Prep three years ago, Jackson Academy last year, and upstart Hartfield this season.
“Winning three in a row, that’s unbelievable,” MRA senior receiver Street Toler said. “It feels good to go out on top.”
Saturday’s title game was tied 7-7 late in the first quarter before MRA scored 35 unanswered points to win going away – much the same way they did for most of the season. After a 1-3 start, the Patriots ran the table with 10 straight victories to finish 11-3. They outscored those 10 opponents 458-109, an average margin of five touchdowns per game.
“We started off slow, but we made some adjustments and were able to put some points on the board,” said MRA senior receiver Davis Dalton, a Southern Miss commit.
Hartfield finished 9-3 with two of those losses coming to MRA in recent weeks. The Patriots defeated the Hawks 45-23 in the regular season finale for both teams.
“We played a really tough schedule early and we struggled some, but those games helped us and they made us the great team we are now,” MRA sophomore quarterback John White said. “Those games prepared us for the rest of the season, and they prepared us for this game. This is what we’ve been working for all year, and we were able to finish it out. That was our goal.”
MRA scored 14 points in the first quarter and 14 more in the second to take a 28-7 halftime lead. The Patriots added another touchdown in the third quarter and another in the fourth to eclipse the 40-point mark for the ninth time this season. They held Hartfield scoreless over the last 37 minutes following the lone touchdown late in first quarter, marking the seventh time this season they’ve allowed seven or fewer points in a game.
MRA finished with 560 yards of total offense, compared to 318 for Hartfield. The Patriots rushed for a season-high 287 yards, led by freshman Quincy Phillips with 94 yards on 19 carries. Three of those resulted in touchdown runs of 7, 3 and 2 yards. Senior Tylor Latham added 87 yards on 10 carries.
“We came into the game with a scheme of what we wanted to do, but (Hartfield) took away some of that, especially in the passing game so we went more with the running game,” Phillips said. “You saw the results, 42-7, so I’d say it worked out pretty good for us.”
White completed 17 of 26 passes for 273 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also added a 18-yard touchdown run. The Winona Christian transfer finished the season with a Mississippi-best 3,936 passing yards and 39 touchdowns.
His two favorite targets all year have been Dalton and Toler, and Saturday night proved no different. Davis had nine catches for 112 yards, while Toler reeled in six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Dalton (89 catches, 1,587 yards, 15 TDs) and Toler (63 catches, 992 yards, 10 TDs) combined for 2,579 yards and 25 touchdowns this season.
“Those two guys can go up and get the ball,” Davis said. “We’re definitely going to miss them next year.”
The Patriots, who have made the championship game in seven of Davis’ eight seasons, have won 41 of its last 42 games against MAIS competition. They’ve won 30 of their last 33 games and 47 of their last 53 overall. Three of those wins have resulted in championships, the latest coming Saturday night.
Soon after receiving their individual medallions, MRA’s players accepted the blue championship trophy and immediately ran it over to the student section to celebrate along with their peers. The students weren’t allowed on the field afterwards, so the players took the celebration to them. Many of them climbed up the wall and into the bleachers along with the students.
With the drumline banging away, began chanting “MRA! MRA! MRA!” in unison and also sang the school fight song. Pictures, lots of them, followed on the field. All the players and coaches held up three fingers to signify the 3-peat.
No doubt, MRA has this celebrating championships thing down pat. Not only did this senior class collect three straight state championships, they also never lost a conference game and went a combined 9-0 against rivals Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy.
“It’s definitely the way you want to go out,” Latham said. “This is what we worked for all year so for it to end like it did is sweet.”
Hartfield quarterback Cruz Garner didn’t play when these two teams met during the regular season. His return made life more difficult for the MRA defense as he threw for 117 yards and rushed for another 89 more on 12 carries. In addition, stud running back Xavier Davis was a load as he has been all season, rushing for 105 yards on 14 carries.
After MRA took an early 7-0 lead on White’s 48-yard touchdown pass to Pax Hughes, it was Davis who tied it with a 7-yard run with just under two minutes remaining in the quarter. The Hawks benefitted from a short field, taking over at the Patriots’ 14-yard line following a high snap and subsequent illegal kick by Dalton. Three plays later, Phillips scored the first of his three rushing touchdowns with one minute, 10 seconds left in the quarter and it was all MRA after that.
That touchdown was set up by a nifty 58-yard reception by Toler on the previous play. The Patriots, known for their spurtability and score from far offense, had a handful of big plays per usual. However, they also grinded out some long drives, as well, something they haven’t done a lot of this season.
MRA had a 12-play, 93-yard drive capped by White’s 18-yard scoring run midway through the second quarter, and followed that up with an 11-play, 75-yard drive capped by Phillips’ 3-yard scoring run. Phillips’ 2-yard scoring run midway through the third quarter put the finishing touches on a 12-play, 94-yard drive. And, last but not least, Toler’s 10-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter capped a nine-play, 92-yard drive.
Meanwhile, Hartfield had its chances to make the game closer but failed to cash in on a few prime scoring opportunities. MRA defensive back Cam Covey blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt to end one drive in the second quarter, and the Patriots’ defense stopped the Hawks’ offense on four straight plays inside the 7-yard line early in the third quarter.
Also, a Hartfield receiver fumbled the ball into the end zone after being hit near the goal line on the tail end of a 61-yard reception. One possession later, the Hawks managed only three yards on four plays after driving inside the MRA 11-yard line and were forced to turn the ball over on downs.
“The defense bent a little bit tonight, but they were tough in the red zone,” Davis said. “We were a little sloppy as a team at times . . . we were our own worst enemy with some penalties. But we kept on plugging away and found a way. These kids have done that all year long, and they did it again tonight. There were times this year, just like tonight, where I wasn’t happy as a coach and I look up and it’s 42-7. So, you can’t complain too much about that.”
One reporter brought up the dynasty word during a postgame interview with Davis. His response?
“I don’t know about all that, but I do know we have something special going on here right now,” he said. “Hopefully, these kids understand that and they keep working hard when we start getting ready for next year. It’s not nearly as easy as you may think. We’re going to enjoy this one, just like we enjoyed the last two, I can assure you.”