RAYMOND — No. 1 Mississippi Gulf Coast won its 16th MACJC South title tonight by beating No. 6 Hinds 31-21 Thursday, but it was by no means easy.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season a perfect 9-0 by rallying from its first deficits of the season.
"It's hard to hold back the emotions," Gulf Coast coach Jack Wright said. "I'm extremely proud of these young men and how hard they worked. I'm definitely happy."
The Bulldogs will host a state semifinal next Saturday at 7 p.m. against an opponent to be determined. The North No. 2 seed will visit A.L. May Memorial Stadium, but that division has three teams tied for first with a 4-2 record: Northwest, Itawamba, and Holmes. The second-seed will be East Mississippi if the Lions beat Northeast on Saturday to make it a four-way tie. If EMCC loses, Itawamba will be the second-seed.
Gulf Coast trailed quickly Thursday when the Eagles struck on a 50-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game.
"There was never any real sense of panic," Wright said. "There was no real sense of surprise. The surprise is we haven't been behind before. This is a tough league, so going behind in this league is no surprise. Hinds was really playing for their life. They had to win to make the playoffs, and they're a very good football team playing at their place. There's no surprise that they played really well and put us behind early."
The Bulldogs tied it up after Tijuane Bolton (So., Perry Central/New Augusta) pounced on a fumble at the Hinds 34-yard line.
Hinds nearly took a lead after a long drive ended when Maleik Gray (So., LaVergne/La Vergne, Tenn.) picked off a Hinds pass in the end zone.
Gulf Coast took a 10-7 lead on a 23-yard field goal early in the second quarter, but Hinds quickly answered on a 20-yard Don Ragsdale touchdown run with 7:37 to play in the half.
The Bulldogs' second deficit of the year didn't last long. After Hinds kicked off out of bounds, Omni Wells (So., Moss Point/Moss Point) immediately ran 65 yards for a 17-14 lead.
Jackie Matthews (So., Pinson Valley/Pinson Ala.) got the second interception two plays later, and Shaun Anderson (So., Picayune/Picayune) scored from two yards to cap a 14-play, 57-yard drive and make it 24-14 going into halftime.
"We made some adjustments," Wright said. "Coach (Brett) Shufelt, you have to give him a lot of credit. He made some adjustments. We had a Plan B ready to go, and that got called a little bit more than you'd expect. That's a very talented group, and they made a lot of negative plays and a lot of takeaways."
The offensive line came out of the locker room and dominated the first drive of the second half. The Bulldogs ran nearly seven minutes off the clock, going 16 plays and 65 yards. Deondre House (Fr., Senatobia/Senatobia) punctuated it with a 4-yard scoring run to make it 31-14. Ten of the plays were runs.
"We were imposing our will," offensive lineman Hayden Burton said. "We were coming off the ball and play playing physical."
Hinds scored with 3:19 left, but Gulf Coast recovered an onside kick and later stopped one last drive thanks to a Navonteque Strong (Fr., Scott Central/Forest) sack. He recovered a fumble on the final Hinds play to ice the victory.
"It feels great," he said. "We came in with a bunch of guys who wanted to play strong and be humble."
Gulf Coast piled up 487 total yards, 276 of which came on the ground. Wells led the way with 104 yards on just nine carries, with Austin Bolton (So., Poplarville/Poplarville) adding 95 yards.
"That's the sign of a good offense," Wright said. "You get ahead, and late in a conference game, can you run the football when you have to run the football? The opposite of that, in the first half the passing game was very efficient. Being able to do both has been a big key for us this year."
The Bulldogs will have three days off, but they're quickly focusing on the next championship.
"We've put in a lot of hard work since the season ended last year," Burton said, "but at the same time we realize we have a lot of football left to play."
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