Led By Vinson, Patriots Repeat

JACKSON – Rayf Vinson’s navy No. 2 jersey was drenched in a combination of sweat, water and Gatorade by game’s end. His white pants were stained with grass and blood. The knee brace on his left knee was twisted out of sorts. His eye black was smudged on his face. His red gloves were loosened near both wrists. And both arms were scratched and bruised.

No doubt, MRA’s Jack-of-all-trades had put in a full day of work Saturday afternoon at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. It was a stark contrast to a year ago when Vinson, sidelined by a season-ending knee injury, looked on from the sideline dressed in khaki pants and a hoodie - squeaky clean and out of harm’s way – as the Patriots won the state championship at Mississippi College.

“I was thinking about that today, definitely,” he said, with a big smile. “All I could do last year was root my guys on . . . it felt kind of numb. So just to be able to be out here and experience all of this, it’s so much different. It feels so much better, especially after tearing my knee up last year . . . to be able to come back from that, there’s nothing better.”

Certainly no one turned in a better performance than did Vinson on this sun-splashed day in the Capital City. The senior rushed for a game/career-high 197 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries as MRA captured a second consecutive MAIS Class 6A State championship with a convincing 41-14 victory over Jackson Academy.

Vinson, who also had two catches for 22 yards, scored on runs of 1, 15 and 22 yards – the last coming with three minutes, one second remaining to put a fitting exclamation point to his extraordinary day and Patriots’ repeat, as well. Oh, and by the way, the Navy commit was credited with six tackles – five solo – and two pass breakups from his “Tiger” position on defense. Two-way player, you betcha. Star of the game, without question.

“What a game he had, huh,” deadpanned MRA head coach Herbert Davis. “That’s the way to go out as a senior. That dude brought it all today. He probably had the game of his life.”

MRA (12-0) overcame a shaky start and a 7-0 first quarter deficit with 34 unanswered points over the second and third quarter. In the process, the Patriots capped off the program’s first undefeated season since 1992, extended their winning streak to 19 games, and secured their fourth state championship.

Davis is 73-19 in seven seasons at 7601 Old Canton Road. MRA has played in the championship game in six of those seven seasons, winning the last two. The Patriots have won 36 of their last 39 games, 31 of their last 32 against MAIS competition. The only league loss during that span came two years ago against Jackson Prep in the title game – the lone setback standing between MRA and three straight state championships.

JA finished 10-4. The Raiders had won six straight coming in, including a 28-21 come-from-behind semifinal victory over Jackson Prep a week ago.

“You hate to be that one and done because you work so hard,” Davis said. “I thought we were good enough to win back-to-back . . . I thought we were where we needed to be . . . but you have to go prove it. We got off to a bit of a slow start today, but we finished great. To be undefeated is just incredible. The whole year was a dream year.”

2020 has been anything but a dream year off the field for everyone, including MRA. It has indeed been a year of Covid, craziness, and change. The one constant has been the Patriots winning and winning big. They won by an average margin of nearly four touchdowns per game, and they did so with an explosive, multi-faceted offense and a stringy, suffocating defense. Both were in full display Saturday as MRA out-gained JA 468-217. The Patriots had 26 first downs compared to the Raiders’ 10. And JA was 2 of 13 on third down, and 1 for 3 on fourth down.

Only two games were close – the season-catapulting 27-26 victory over three-time Texas state champion Texas Christian in Aug. 21 opener, and the 20-10 victory at JA on Sept. 4. Most were over by halftime.

Offensive line coach Kenny Williams’ mother died early in the season. Defensive line coach Matt Walker lost his father late in the season. More recently, offensive lineman George Drake lost his uncle to cancer earlier this week. He served as a pallbearer at his uncle’s funeral earlier Saturday prior to the game. Then, of course, there’s Davis, who has continued to coach his fanny off while battling kidney disease. Two games were cancelled because of Covid, another one added. One opponent changed. Through it all the Patriots kept playing and playing at a high level.

Much of the credit goes to Davis and his staff. Much goes to the seniors, who went 36-4 over the past three seasons. Those same seniors won only one game as 9th graders in junior high.

“When you talk about all the things we’ve been through with all the good players we lost from last year, Covid, my health . . . it’s been a really special year,” Davis said. “I tip my hat to this group of seniors for helping us keep it together.”

Said MRA linebacker Stone Blanton: “It has been an amazing year. Having a coach like Coach Davis who battles what he’s going through and having him lead us is truly inspiring. He’s the best. We are very grateful to have him.”

Likewise, Davis is blessed to have Blanton, who delivered one hard hit after another on Saturday. He, Jude Aldridge (11 tackles, 1 sack), Sam Polles (7 tackles, 2 pass breakups) and the rest of the defense helped keep MRA in the game early while the offense struggled. The Raiders did manage a touchdown late in the first quarter on a 17-yard pass from Jackson Conn to Marcus Harris to take a 7-0 lead, but the damage could’ve been worse if not three stops by the MRA defense inside Patriots’ territory.

After three empty possessions, the MRA offense was in desperate need of a spark and finally got it in the form of a 30-yard completion from quarterback Zach Beasley to Street Toler. That play seemed to ignite the Patriots’ offense as three plays later Beasley scored on a 13-yard run to tie the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter. It was all MRA from that point on.

While the Patriots’ defense stifled JA’s offense on seven straight possessions, MRA’s offense scored on four of its next seven to seize control in a major way. Vinson’s 1-yard scoring run made it 14-7 midway through the second quarter, and Beasley’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Tylor Latham with just :08 seconds left in the quarter made it 21-7 at halftime. Interestingly enough, MRA has outscored its opponents 184-25 in the second quarter this season. The Patriots have scored 77 combined points in the second quarter over the last three games alone.

Vinson pushed the lead to 28-7 on a 15-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter. He ran six straight times on the drive, accounting for 64 yards. Then, later in the third, Beasley connected with Ty Brooks on a 41-yard scoring strike for a 34-7 MRA lead. It was Brooks’ first TD grab this season.

Harris added his second touchdown of the day – a 5-yard run – on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 34-14. MRA then did the football equivalent of the old four corners offense in basketball, putting together a 16-play, 93 yard drive spanning 8 minutes, 48 seconds. It was by far MRA’s longest drive of the year, one that included five timely first downs and Vinson’s 22-yard capper.

“I didn’t think I was going to score on that play,” said Vinson, who finished the season with a team-best 18 rushing touchdowns. “I just saw a hole and took off and tried my best to hold onto the ball. I couldn’t have done any of that today without the offensive line. That’s the best offensive line in the state.

As was the case in the regular season meeting between the two teams, MRA’s offensive line took over. The Patriots finished with 268 yards on 42 carries, with nearly 200 of that coming in the second half. MRA ran for 248 yards in the first meeting for a total of 516 rushing yards in two games against the Raiders’ defense.

“Our offense was able to chew up the clock for almost nine minutes, that’s insane,” Blanton said.

Said Davis: “We got off to a slow start, and made a lot of mistakes early. It almost looked like we were kind of jittery. Maybe the pressure was a little much on us trying to win two in a row, I don’t know. But we settled in and after that we started taking over the game. Overall did a tremendous job. The defense settled in, we starting making some big plays in the passing game, and then our offensive line finished it.”

Beasley, a senior transfer from Northwest Rankin, threw for 200 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another. He had 10 touchdown passes over the last three games and finished with the season with 2,458 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes against only four interceptions. Those are stellar numbers by any measure, even more so considering the pressure Beasley faced in replacing Philip Short, the best quarterback in school history.

“I knew it was going to be some hard shoes to fill coming in after Philip, he’s a great player,” Beasley said. “I just tried to come in and do the best I could do and rely on my teammates to help me out. To be able to say that we finished undefeated and won the championship is a pretty good feeling.

“We weren’t sure we were going to be able to play a game . . . all the way through July we really weren’t even sure we were going to have a season,” he continued. “We are thankful we were able to have a season, and we are thankful we were able to finish it off the way we did today.”

The MRA fans, most dressed in red, weren’t initially allowed on the field to celebrate. So the Patriots took the celebration to them. Many of the players scaled the wall and made their way onto the railings in front of where the students were seated before working their way back onto the field to collect the blue championship trophy and gold medallions.

“It was awesome getting to play at The Vet, and it was incredible winning it back-to-back,” Polles said. “That was goal at the beginning of the year, and that was our mindset today. It was so much fun being able to celebrate with the students and our fans the way we did. It was almost surreal. It was an unreal experience, one words can’t really describe. I know I’ll never forget it.”