WEST POINT — On paper, Casey Welch knew the West Point High School football team had plenty of weapons to be successful.
But the Green Wave running backs coach wasn”t sure how a mix of senior Xavier Hogan and juniors Lakenderic Thomas and Jacoby Lee was going to fare.
An injury to Hogan early in the season forced the coaches to reshuffle the responsibilities for the running backs, but the Green Wave haven”t broken stride.
The maturation of Thomas, Lee, and junior quarterback Justin Cox has helped West Point close in on a goal that has been on its mind since 2005.
At 7 tonight, West Point (12-1) and New Hope (11-1) will meet in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North Half State title game at Trojan Field.
The winner will advance to play the winner of tonight”s Wayne County-Moss Point game at 7 p.m. Dec. 5 at Mississippi Memorial Stadium.
The Green Wave are shooting for their first state title since 2005, while the Trojans are playing for their first chance at a state title.
West Point has reached this point thanks to a dominating offensive line and a balanced running attack. The Green Wave might not have had a host of 100-yard games or have multiple 1,000-yard rushers this season. What they do have is a group of runners who complement each other and who don”t give a defense any chance to rest.
“What makes that group really special, and the best I have ever coached by far, is that they are so unselfish,” Welch said. “One may march us all the way down the field carrying the ball and another one will get the touchdown. A lot of kids are worried about individual stats, but they just want to know what they got as a group and how many touchdowns we had as a group.”
Welch said Hogan is the leader of the group. The senior tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee earlier this season but opted to keep playing. The injury forced the coaches to move Hogan from fullback to tailback, but the switch hasn”t stalled the offense.
Welch said Hogan has remained a positive leader on and off the field and continues to be a driving force behind the Green Wave”s march to a state title.
“You can”t say enough about him,” Welch said. “The kids see him playing with a torn ACL it makes a bump or a bruise not seem like it is a major thing. He has helped Lakenderic improve and he also has helped with Jacoby”s progression. I wish we could keep him around.”
Welch has been surprised by the way some of the younger players have stepped up and taken on bigger roles. He said Thomas and Lee have emerged to shoulder a big part of the running duties. Their performances have been impressive considering Welch said Lee has been plagued by injuries in his career, while an ankle injury bothered Thomas last season after a strong freshman season.
The improved and mature play of Cox, who is in his first season at quarterback, has rounded out the offense and helped the Green Wave erase the memory of a first-round loss to Lafayette in the Class 4A North Half State playoffs last season.
“Justin adds athleticism to the position,” Welch said. “Justin had never played quarterback before, and coach (Lee J.) Grisham has worked with him on the small details of being quarterback. We”re not going to throw the football 50 times a game. We”re not a spread passing team, but when we have asked him to throw the ball he has done everything we have asked him to do. He is accurate enough to do what we want to do and he is athletic enough to be able to run out of that position. That is key for our offense to have that athletic quarterback who can make the offense go.
“Justin has definitely been a big, big, big contributor. He is definitely the engine that makes this offense run. If you watch the first game, he does things as a quarterback that he is not doing anymore, which shows he is growing.”
West Point High coach Chris Chambless said the younger players have blended with the veterans to produce a team that hasn”t lost focus following a season-opening loss at Shannon. Twelve victories later, the focus on winning a state title remains.
Chambless knows the Green Wave face a difficult challenge to get to Jackson. Even though his team beat the Trojans 35-8 on Oct. 2 in Columbus, he and his coaches expect a tougher game tonight.
“We look at it as the toughest game we have played all year,” Chambless said. “We know one of the hardest things to do is to beat a team twice in a year. … We want to stay on focused and getting the job done to the best of our ability.”
Chambless credited New Hope coach Michael Bradley and his players for getting the job done each week “with their backs against the wall.” He said the Trojans” performances reflect a program with a lot of character. He hopes his players are up for a challenge that will come before what he expects will be a standing-room only crowd.
“Every time we have been tested we have overcome,” Chambless said. “We”re not finishing up with the same roster we started with, but you never do. Our seniors have just been awesome with their leadership. They have stayed positive. A lot of the problems don”t even get to me. They settle problems in a very mature way. You team is going to go as your seniors go, and our underclassmen have done a good job of following.”
Bradley said New Hope hasn”t talked much about the first meeting. He credited West Point for “blowing up” everything his team tried to do in October, and hopes his players can ride the momentum from playoff victories against Callaway and Ridgeland and stay focused against the pressure the Green Wave will bring.
“We”re hoping to get to the level West Point is at,” Bradley said. “West Point is at another level compared to all of the other teams in North Mississippi in 5A. They know what it takes to play in big games, and they proved that to us on Oct. 2. They responded to the hype, and it is going to be a big challenge for us to line up and have success because they are solid at every position. They have athletes where you need athletes and they have big, strong guys where you need big, strong guys. They also have, in my opinion, the most exciting player in the state in Michael Carr.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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