The emotion was genuine last Friday night as Coach Tim Melton addressed the Calhoun Academy Cougars in the middle of the field at Pearl High School.
The Cougars had just rallied from a 24-8 halftime deficit, outscoring Clinton Christian 28-6 in the second half, punching in a touchdown in the final 30 seconds to lock up the school's first berth in a football state title game.
“I've waited all my life to get to a state championship game,” Melton told the Cougars as they huddled tightly around him, all on a knee. There were more than a few tears of joy in the huddle. “You guys got me there. We'll remember this the rest of our lives.”
In the previous eight seasons, the Cougars have gone winless three times and had an overall record of 17-64.
These seniors had a three-year stretch, 8th-10th grade, when the Cougars were 3-28.
Then last year they reached the playoffs for the first time in school history.
This year, they've blown away all the school records. The Cougars clinched the first winning season for the school in decades several weeks ago. Friday night, the Cougars won a school record 11th game of the year and earned the desired rematch with Russell Christian – the only team they've lost to – in the MAIS 8-Man State Championship.
“This is amazing,” senior lineman Kelby Flemons kept telling me in a postgame interview.
Amazing was the Cougars’ resiliency in the second half. They could have easily packed it up after a demoralizing first half, but they did the opposite.
They dominated the third quarter. Kyle Carter's powerful running up the middle seemed to deflate the Clinton Christian defense on the opening drive.
When the Warriors took possession, the previously elusive Robert Green Jr., who thrashed the Cougar defense in the first half with his speed at QB, suddenly found Devin Northrip and Corey Baggett all over him every play as soon as he could catch a shotgun snap.
It became apparent this game would turn for good when senior Danny Joe Norman – the Cougars’ biggest playmaker the past few seasons – scooped up a punt on the second hop, made the first Warrior tackler miss and then tip-toed the sideline 50 yards for a touchdown.
I could hear Gerry Winters, who after leading the Cougars to the playoffs for the first time last year had to step back as head coach this season due to health problems, hollering from the bench behind me. The Cougar players on the sideline, in unison, seemed to leap 10 feet in the air as Norman raced across the goal line. Headmaster Kevin Chrestman repeatedly pumped his fist and Barry Shankle, as he did all game long, screamed “Cougars!” over a bull horn from the giant metal stands.
It would be hard to argue it was the greatest night in Calhoun Academy football history, but it could be topped this Friday morning at Mississippi College against Russell Christian.
You may email Joel McNeece at firstname.lastname@example.org