MRA Adds Another Quality W To Resume
CORINTH – MRA has long since established itself as one of the premiere football programs in the Mississippi private school ranks. The Patriots aren’t satisfied with that, however. They want more. They want to evolve into more of a state-wide commodity, even a regional one. Expand their brand and identity, if you will.
Coach Herbert Davis’ squad, led by a stellar performance from quarterback Zach Beasley, took another huge step in that direction on a gloomy, overcast Friday evening here in the far northeast corner of Mississippi, walloping defending MHSAA Class 4A champion Corinth 51-17 at Warrior Stadium.
“This was a big statement win for us,” MRA senior safety Hayes Puckett said. “To come in here and beat the top ranked team in 4A like that on their home field says a lot about the type of team and program we have.”
Indeed. After falling behind 3-0 early, MRA, the reigning MAIS Class 6A state champion, rattled off 30 unanswered points in an 11-minute stretch spanning the last six minutes of the first quarter and the first five minutes of the second quarter to take a commanding 30-3 lead. Yes, the game quickly turned into a blowout, just not the one many envisioned, especially those in this region of the state.
The homecoming crowd sat stunned in disbelief as MRA dominated Corinth, a team which had won 16 of its last 18 games coming in, with the only losses coming against Class 6A programs Olive Branch (24-23) and Tupelo (38-35) by a combined four points. The Warriors’ defense, in particular the secondary, simply had no answer for Beasley and Co. The senior quarterback accounted for five touchdowns, throwing four touchdown passes and running for another to spearhead the convincing 34-point road victory – one that sent shockwaves throughout the state.
Beasley, who welcomed the return of standout receiver Davis Dalton, completed 12 of 23 passes for 315 yards. That’s an average of 26.3 yards per completion, somewhat reminiscent of his record-setting predecessor Philip Short. It was a bounce back performance of sorts for Beasley, following an uneven performance in his last outing against Bayou.
“(Corinth) was playing a lot different coverage than Bayou . . . they were allowing us to get some deep shots,” said Beasley, who is in his first year at MRA after transferring from Northwest Rankin. “We’ve been working on our choice routes and getting everything right in practice. Our connection was off in the Bayou game, but tonight it was much better. I felt good tonight. I was worrying less about what was in front of me . . . not even looking at the line . . . and focusing more on placing the ball down field.”
Said Puckett: “Zach was great. The Bayou he missed a few passes and we had a few drops. A lot of people had their head down after that game, but he came out tonight as confident and as good as he’s looked all year. He threw it all over the yard.”
A pregame hype video, complete with an accompanying firework show, greeted MRA in the final minutes leading into the game. The Patriots quickly killed that vibe with fireworks of their own during the game. Beasley and Dalton hooked up twice for touchdowns in the first quarter, the first covering 39 yards and the latter covering 58 yards. Davis’ two touchdown receptions sandwiched the first of two Rayf Vinson scoring runs as MRA jumped to a 20-3 first quarter lead.
The Patriots extended that lead to 27-3 early in the second quarter on Vinson’s second touchdown, and Landon McGee’s 28-yard field goal made it 30-3. Vinson now has a team-leading nine rushing touchdowns. Beasley added an 8-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, and a couple of minutes later he connected with Trey Zito on a 44-yard scoring strike. Early in the fourth quarter, he tossed his fourth and final touchdown pass, a perfectly thrown 50-yarder to Street Toler.
“Zach had a great week of practice this week, and it carried over into tonight’s game,” Davis said. “He’s starting to understand things. I think he’s understood where we wanted to go with the ball . . . the timing of everything I just don’t think he was getting. But tonight he trusted his offensive line, and he got the ball out on time. He threw some great balls tonight. Early in the year, he was throwing darts in there. But tonight he threw the ball with some touch. He scrambled for a couple of big first downs and a touchdown, too. I thought Street (Toler) played well, and it was good having Davis (Dalton) back. He’s tough to play one on one out there.”
Dalton had three catches for 123 yards in his return after missing MRA’s last two games with an illness. It was his first game back after a three-week hiatus as last week’s game against Philadelphia was canceled. Much as was the case in his breakout performance in a Week 1 victory over Trinity (Texas) Christian (6 catches, 143 yards, 3 TDs), the 6-foot-3 junior proved tough to defend. Davis had one long reception called back because of a penalty, and if not for a Beasley overthrow on the third play of the game he would’ve had a third touchdown.
“I’m not going to lie, I was a little tired at the end of that first touchdown,” Dalton said, smiling. “It felt good to be back out there, though.”
MRA improved to 5-0 and extended its winning streak to 12 games dating back to last season. The Patriots have now won 29 of their last 32 games over the past three seasons, and have won 24 of their last 25 games against MAIS competition entering next week’s game at Parklane Academy.
Corinth dropped to 2-2.
When Briarcrest Christian (Tenn.) backed out of this year’s season-opener against MRA citing coronavirus restrictions, Davis went searching for a quality opponent and found Trinity Christian. The Patriots upset the three-time Texas state champions 27-26 on that day, kickstarting the 2020-’21 season in surprising fashion. They have since defeated Copiah, Jackson Academy, Bayou and now Corinth.
MRA’s scheduled games against Philadelphia and Bay Springs as those two teams canceled due to coronavirus issues. That left Davis once again scrambling for games. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a replacement game last week after Philadelphia canceled the afternoon before the game. He worked the phones again and was able to arrange the game with Corinth.
“I’m proud of our program and where it’s at right now,” Davis said. “You’ve got to play these types of games to get where we need to be. Our ultimate goal is to win a state championship. Those two schools down in Jackson (Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy) are still going to be tough. We’ve got to keep getting better. I thought we did this week.”
Scheduling non-MAIS games is nothing new for Davis, who takes the anyone, anywhere, anytime approach. Since he arrived at MRA seven years ago, his teams have won games against teams from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas. The Patriots also own wins over MHSAA schools Amory, Taylorsville, St. Stanislaus, and now Corinth. MRA also played St. Martin in consecutive years. Davis has already had preliminary discussions with Arkansas dynamo Pulaski Academy and Calvary Baptist out of Shreveport about scheduling games next season.
“We never have backed down from it the whole time we’ve been here,” Davis said. “Even when we used to get beat by some real good ones. Now our kids look forward to playing these type games. They were excited to come play this game. I think we opened some eyes when we beat Trinity Christian, and the same with (Corinth) game. I know our administration is even more open to us playing games like this after seeing how well we’ve performed.”
Corinth was certainly a believer after Friday night.
“They played extremely hard every snap. I was impressed with the effort they gave every play,” Corinth coach Todd Lowery told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “That’s something we will be taking back to our boys on Monday. Hat’s off to MRA. They’ve got a great program.”
MRA finished with 408 yards of total offense, while Corinth had 258. The Warriors managed only 107 net yards in the first half, however, with 18 of those coming on a touchdown run :48 seconds before halftime. Star running back Cayden Betts (26 carries, 131 yards) was a load, although the Patriots did manage to keep him out of the end zone. Corinth’s final points – a 67-yard run by Nazarius Jones – came with just under four minutes left against MRA’s second team defense.
MRA had three takeaways and a blocked punt. The first one – a fumble recovery after a muff on the kickoff following Davis’ first touchdown reception – loomed large. The Patriots recovered on the Warriors’ 10-yard line and two plays later Vinson scored, setting the tone for the rest of the game. “It was a big momentum shift for us for sure,” Puckett said.
Corinth lost a lot off last year’s championship team. So, too, did MRA. The Patriots lost the best quarterback in school history in Short, two-way player Joe Perkins who made his debut at Florida International on Saturday, starting running back Drew Horton, and tackling machine Willie Latham along with the top five leading receivers. Also consider the fact that MRA was without three starters Friday night. Linebacker Braeden Watters (foot) and offensive linemen George Drake (foot) and J.P. Wilke (concussion) all sat out. Triston Hayles, normally a halfback/defensive end, started at right guard after moving to the position earlier in the week out of dire necessity.
“How about that guy,” said Davis, referring to Hayles. “I doubt he’s ever played there before tonight, but he stepped in and did a good job. He’s a football player.”
Despite the heavy graduation losses, MRA was once again expected to be in the running for another state championship. Few, if any, thought the Patriots would be as good as they’ve been up to this point – with wins over Trinity Christian and Corinth in tow.
“Going into the summer I was a little unsure of our team and just how good we could be because we lost so much,” Puckett said. “But by the end of the summer, I knew with all the camaraderie and how much better we had gotten, that we were going to be really good. So, I’m not that surprised to be honest with you. The thing now is we’ve got to keep it rolling, starting with next week’s game at Parklane.”