By Robert Wilson
Photos by Robert Smith and Chris Todd

       MADISON – Copiah Academy football coach Billy Wayne Hankins fell one game short of winning his fifth MAIS state championship last season.

       He might get it this year, especially if his Colonels continue to play like they did here Friday night.

       Copiah, on the strength of 243 rushing yards and a stingy defense, defeated Madison St. Joseph and Division I quarterback prospect Emile Picarella 28-7 in the season opener for both teams at St. Joe.

       Hankins and his team went 11-3 and finished second to Heritage and quarterback Mack Howard, rated as the No. 1 quarterback in Class of 2024 in the Mississippi and one of the top ones in the country by 247 sports.

       But with Howard transferring to Oxford High and Copiah returning 12 starters (seven on defense and five on offense) from last year’s team, the Colonels are considered the favorite to win the MAIS Class 5A state championship and give Hankins his fifth, the first at Copiah after four at Simpson Academy.

       Copiah has not won a state title since 2006.

       One of the returning starters, quarterback Wyatt Albright, had an outstanding start to his senior season Friday. The 6-foot, 185-pound Albright gained 109 yards on 18 carries and scored three touchdowns. He scored on a 5-yard run to give Copiah a 6-0 lead in the first quarter, a 4-yard run for a 20-7 lead in the third quarter, and a 34-yard run for a 28-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Albright also passed for 41 yards and scored a 2-point conversion.

       Despite losing workhorse JD Weed (2,700 total yards, including 333 against Heritage in the championship game), who graduated and is now playing baseball at Meridian Community College and three offensive line starters, Copiah looked impressive.

Meanwhile, Copiah’s defense didn’t give Picarella – rated the No. 7 prostyle quarterback in the Class of 2025 in the country by – a lot of time and it resulted in an off night for the talented sophomore, who has Division I offers from Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Oregon, Pittsburgh and Akron. Picarella, who faced constant pressure from Copiah’s defensive front, completed 14 of 27 passes for 170 yards with one interception.

As a freshman, Picarella completed 141 of 231 passes (61.0 percent) for 2,216 yards and 21 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 11 games for 4-7 St. Joe last season.

Copiah’s defense, led by 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore middle linebacker Dejarious Segrest, held St. Joe to 209 total yards and one score and that one was set up when Copiah fumbled at its own 30 late in the first quarter. Segrest finished with a team-high six tackles, five solos and one assist, and one sack.

       Copiah also spoiled Jason Moore’s career debut as a head coach. Moore is in his first year as St. Joe’s head coach after being defensive coordinator at St. Joe for three seasons and 25 years as an assistant at MHSAA schools Brandon, Florence, Puckett, Pelahatchie, and Forest.

St. Joe hasn’t had a winning season since 2017 and has had only two winning seasons in the past eight seasons.

St. Joe had 12 returning starters, increased its roster by 14 players up to 42 and added five transfers, including senior running back-wide receiver Million Kelly from MHSAA Class 5A Forest Hill, who gained 1,258 all-purpose yards – a team-high 569 yards on 115 carries, a 4.9-yard average, and eight TDs, caught 28 passes for 429 yards and three TDs and had 260 yards on seven kickoff returns, a 37.6-yard average, and one TD – in nine games last season as a junior.

       But the Bruins couldn’t get enough going offensively to get into the end zone more than once and slow down Copiah on a rainy Friday. The kickoff was delayed about one hour due to the weather.

       In addition to Picarella being slowed down, Kelly gained just 21 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for 30 yards Friday night.