By Austin Bishop
The Choctaw Plaindealer
JACKSON — Nathan Wright was in no hurry to walk off the turf at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium on Friday afternoon. The French Camp Academy head football coach wanted to savor every moment of his team’s 27-6 win over Smithville in the MHSAA Class 1A State Championship Football Game.
And why not? Just 49 days earlier his Panthers had suffered what appeared to be a devastating 50-21 loss to region foe Pelahatchie just a few miles down the road from where he was now standing.
“That was a long trip home because we thought, ‘well, it may be over now,’” Wright said. “At that point we knew that if we didn’t get some guys healthy we were in trouble. You know who your players are and we lean heavily on those seniors and a lot of those guys were hurt. We knew we were in trouble.”
“I didn’t think we would ever make it this far,” Box said of what was running through his mind on that long bus ride home seven weeks earlier. “At that point I was thinking let’s just enjoy the rest of the season and get a few wins and end it on a positive note. I didn’t ever imagine we would make it this far.”
But the Panthers regrouped and as those injured warriors began to heal FCA put together a season-ending seven-game winning streak that culminated in the school’s first-ever state championship in football.
After a rain-soaked first quarter the Panthers, now 11-5 on the season, exploded for 21 second-quarter points and then held on in the second half to earn the win.
FCA took a 7-0 lead with 11:51 left in the first half when the Panthers closed out a six-play, 91-yard drive with a 27-yard touchdown run by Michael Erving. The drive included a 40-yard pass from Jesse Hosket to Hagan Box and a 21-yard completion to Erving.
Box gave the Panthers a two-touchdown lead with an electrifying 73-yard punt return for a score with 8:28 left in the half.
“When I turned the corner and cut inside that last defender I was pretty confident,” Box said of his return. When he was settling under the punt it looked like he may have lifted his arm, signaling for a fair catch. But when Box gathered the ball in he headed down the right side line and then made a pair of nifty moves behind excellent blocking to bust the long return.
“I just made a sharp little cut (as I was getting under the ball) and my momentum shifted over and my arm just went up like that,” Box said. “It wasn’t intentional or anything like that.” With no flags on the field, Sam Gould connected on his second extra point of the day to put the winners up 14-0.
After a short Smithville punt on the Seminoles’ next possession, Hosket hit Hunter McKnight with a 31-yard pass to give the Panthers a first-and-goal on the 6-yard line and then ran the ball in for the touchdown on the next play. Gould’s kick made it 21-0 with 5:34 left to play in the half.
The Panthers squandered scoring opportunities on their last possession of the half and first opportunity of the second half.
“I felt like we left a few points on the field,” said FCA offensive coordinator Bruce Hosket, Jesse’s father. “Our offense just wasn’t as good as it could have been in the second half, but we did what we needed to do.”
Smithville used a 31-yard pass play from Drew Lann to Neil Knight and then a 31-yard run by Knight to set up a 13-yard touchdown run by Lann with 9:54 left in the third quarter as the Seminoles cut the FCA lead to 21-6.
Gould hammered through a 42-yard field goal for French Camp with 3:38 left in the third quarter and knocked through a 23-harder with 7:38 to play in the contest to wrap up the scoring.
The Panthers rolled up 319 yards of total offense in the game to just 102 for Smithville. Hosket hit on 9-of-16 passes for 185 yards, while Erving rushed for 77 yards on seven carries and Box had eight attempts for 66 yards and a catch for 40 more. McKnight had four receptions for 78 yards and Erving three for 34.
Knight led Smithville with two rushes for 36 yards, while Tyler Hood had 18 yards rushing on eight attempts and Lann hit on 3-of-13 passes for 59 yards.
“After we beat Sebastopol (in the last game of the regular season to qualify for the MHSAA Class 1A Playoffs) we knew we could take it all the way,” said senior linebacker Daniel Hughes. “We had a little trouble with (Bogue Chitto) and all of the playoff games were tough, but we came through in the end.”
And the end result was the pinnacle of an amazing run from being 4-5 and virtually eliminated from the playoffs to MHSAA Class 1A State Champions.
“I wouldn’t have imagined it,” said Jesse Hosket. “It makes it better that we (were down so low) and came back and won it all.”