COLUMBIA – The third time was the charm for Chip Bilderback and the Columbia Wildcats.
After coming up short in the South State finals the previous two seasons, Columbia finally punched its ticket to the MHSAA State Championships, defeating Poplarville 12-7 Friday night in a gritty defensive contest at Walter Payton Field.
Columbia (13-1), the No. 1-ranked team in Class 4A, advanced to the state finals for only the third time in school history and the first time since 1998.
The Wildcats will face North State champ Senatobia, which got past Caledonia 34-27 to advance to the 4A finals at 11 a.m. next Saturday at M.M. Roberts Stadium on the Southern Miss campus in Hattiesburg.
Poplarville, which had won South State in 4A in four of the previous five seasons, completed its season at 11-3.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Bilderback, now in his fourth season at Columbia.
“From the first day of offseason program, this is where we needed to be. We’re not surprised to be here. It has taken so much hard work, sacrifice and commitment to get here, and I can’t say enough about our senior group. They have had a championship mentality from Day 1.”
The difference this season was that Columbia is now in Class 4A, after moving up from 3A in the most recent reclassification.
Friday’s game had the makings of a classic right from the start. The Hornets were hoping to avenge one of their two previous defeats, a 27-3 loss on Oct. 22 in Region 7-4A play, but it was the Wildcats who had the early momentum.
Columbia took the ball to open the game and drove to the Poplarville 23-yard-line on the strength of runs of 11, 7 and 9 yards by senior Omar Johnson, a pattern that would continue all night long.
Johnson wore out the right side of the Poplarville defense and finished the game with 142 yards on 30 carries.
“I expected it,” said Johnson. “Coach told me before the game to trust the line and to fight, to be a raging bull.”
The Wildcats were stopped on a fourth-down play on their first possession, but they cashed in their second.
Columbia scored on a fourth-and-8 from the Poplarville 33 on a pass from quarterback Carter Smith to junior D.J. Cloyd, who beat good coverage by going over the defender to snag the ball in the end zone.
“It was all on the quarterback and the coaches,” said Cloyd. “They put me in a position to do what I do. Me and my quarterback, we have great chemistry, (he knows) where I like the ball, and he put it right there for me to go up and get it.”
However, the Wildcats were flagged for two false starts, pushing them out of range to kick a PAT, and Smith’s pass was no good. But the score gave Columbia a 6-0 lead it would hold by the narrowest of margins.
“Two great ball teams,” said Poplarville coach Jay Beech. “We had our opportunities in the first half to do something with the ball when we had it, and that was proven to be the difference in the game.”
Early in the second quarter, Poplarville junior Quan Huderson stepped in front of a pass and dashed 41 yards down the sideline before being pushed out of bounds at the Columbia 15.
That was fortuitous for Columbia, because two pays later, the Wildcats stripped the ball from Hornet tailback Maurice Travis and Amerion Fortenberry recovered the fumble.
After getting the ball back on a punt, Poplarville embarked on what would prove to be its only real offensive drive of the night, moving from their own 38 to a first-and-goal at the Columbia 7.
On first down, Travis was stopped for a 1-yard loss, but Huderson picked up 4 yards on second down and was stopped a half-yard from the goal line for a 3-yard gain on third down.
After a time out, the Hornets brought in junior Avan Jarvis to take the direct snap out of the wildcat formation on fourth down, but senior Jaheim Oatis blew it up for no gain.
“When we went to the sideline, we knew they were going to get in a spot like this in the game,” said Oatis, who has committed to play college ball at Alabama. “I just knew I had to step up and be a big factor in the play. Coach told us that was the play we’d be looking for, and we stopped it.”
“That was our goal-line package,” said Beech. “We’ve gone to that all year and had success with it, but they got the best of us on that one.”
Fortune finally smiled on the Hornets after they went three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half.
Columbia had a good drive going near midfield, but on a third-and-9, Smith was sacked for a 6-yard loss and the ball was knocked out of his hands.
Junior Nakiel Trotter scooped up the fumble and motored 47 yards for a touchdown. Zach Carpenter’s PAT kick was good, giving Poplarville a 7-6 lead with 7:08 to play in the third quarter.
The Hornets were able to maintain their lead into the fourth quarter, when Bilderback dipped into his trick bag for a reverse, with Cloyd streaking around left end 59 yards before getting pushed out of bounds at the Poplarville 5.
“We had run (that play) so much in practice that they got me comfortable with it,” said Cloyd. “I just executed the play like I was supposed to. This is the best feeling I’ve had in a long time.”
“We’ve had that play in all year, and it’s worked every once in a while,” said Bilderback. “We changed the way it looks a little bit. But it’s been there all year, just waiting for the right time. Great downfield blocking, and with the flow going so hard on the running back.”
That run and the touchdown pass were the only two times Cloyd would touch the ball, but it was enough. On second down, Johnson crashed into the end zone over left guard for the go-ahead points. Once again, Columbia failed on a PAT run, but it was still a five-point lead.
“We saw on the film that (the right side) was their weakness,” said Johnson. “We just kept fighting and kept fighting, just trust in the line and they trusted in us.”
Columbia forced a punt on the ensuing possession and took over at their own 21. Three plays yielded just nine yards, leaving the Wildcats with a fourth-and-1 at the 30-yard-line.
Bucking the conventional wisdom that called for a punt, Columbia instead chose to for it and Johnson picked up the yard by about half the length of a football.
“The kids talked me into going for it on fourth-and-1 right there at the end,” Bilderback said. “I know this about coaching. If the kids believe in something, they will get it. They believed they were going to get that yard down there, and they did.”
Although the gamble did not result in a score, it burned half of the remaining clock, leaving Poplaville 72 yards from paydirt with under three minutes to play and no time outs. Passes on third and fourth down were no good and Columbia was able to run out the clock.
“That was crazy,” Johnson said. “He was about to punt it, and we said, ‘We got this. Everybody be a man, stay together, stay disciplined, do your job and bow up. We’re going to get this.’”
It was a sad ending to a storied senior class for Poplarville, which had reached the state finals each of the three previous seasons.
“We lose a great senior class, 22 seniors that have won a lot of football games, been to the state title game every year but this year,” said Beech. “It will be very difficult to replace them.”
For Columbia, however, it is a chance to add a gold football to go with the one the Wildcats earned way back in 1982, when they defeated New Albany for the Class A title.
“We’re going to take the City of Columbia about 25 miles down the road to The Rock,” said Bilderback. “We’re going to pack that thing out and try to bring a championship back home.”