Who: MRA vs. Greenville Christian
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: MRA in Madison
Audio: ESPN 105.9 FM
By Robert Wilson
Madison-Ridgeland Academy ended the 2021 football season on a high note by winning its third consecutive MAIS state championship in dominating fashion, a 42-7 victory over Hartfield Academy for the Class 6A title.
MRA coach Herbert Davis won its sixth state title and led the Patriots to a 11-3 record and finished with a 10-game winning streak. MRA wide receiver Davis Dalton, a Southern Miss signee, was named the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Football Player of the Year and set a Mississippi record with 388 receiving yards against Jackson Prep. Quarterback John White and linebacker Stone Blanton were first-team selections on the Metro Jackson team and had outstanding seasons.
But the 2021 season didn’t start out that way for MRA. In fact, the Patriots’ season opener was a surprise to many MAIS football fans as defending MAIS Class 3A state champion Greenville Christian School – led by Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year, quarterback DJ Jones – defeated MRA 58-32 to end MRA’s 19-game winning streak and 22-game home winning streak. MRA, playing without Blanton, an Under Armour All-American and South Carolina signee, and several other key players, couldn’t slow down Greenville Christian’s explosive offense, which scored 28 points in the first 14 minutes of the game. The Saints ended the game on the MRA 5-yard line and knelt several times to run out the clock or they might have scored in the 60s. Smith was spectacular, completing 22 of 39 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns and running for 214 yards on 20 carries and two TDs and two two-point conversions. So was wide receiver Chris Bell, a transfer from Yazoo City High who caught three TD passes and had two more nullified, one by offensive pass interference and another one that he was ruled out of the back of the end zone.
Jones and Bell and the rest of a talented group of seniors went on to have a tremendous season. Greenville Christian finished with a 12-1 record, a second straight MAIS Class 3A state title and a No. 74 national ranking by MaxPreps, the only Mississippi team in the Top 100. Greenville Christian’s only loss was to Collins Hill (Ga.) High, ranked No. 12 nationally by MaxPreps. Many consider last year’s Greenville Christian team the best in MAIS history.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Smith passed for 2,516 passing yards and 37 TDs and ran for 940 rushing yards and 14 TDs. He accounted for 320 yards, five TDs and three 2-point conversions in a 46-8 victory over Canton Academy in the state title game. Smith passed for 589 yards and six TDs in a 48-13 win over MAIS Class 6A Jackson Prep. He passed for 305 yards and two TDs and ran for 125 yards and four TDs in a 48-41 victory over defending MHSAA Class 6A Oak Grove in the most anticipated meeting between private and public school football teams in Mississippi history. Bell caught 35 passes for 828 yards, an average of 23.7 per catch, and 14 TDs last season.
Both MRA and Greenville Christian will look a lot different Thursday when the two defending state champions meet at 7 p.m. at MRA in Madison in the 2022 season opening game for Mississippi football teams.
For Greenville Christian, the nucleus of last year’s team graduated, 22 seniors, 18 of them are playing college football this season, including Smith at Jones County Junior College and Bell at the University of Louisville. Coach Jon Reed McLendon, who begins his ninth season at Greenville Christian, has five returning starters, four on defense (seniors Trey Rhodes and Kelvin Lyons at safety and Kingston Grant and Letavion Knox at defensive line) and one on offense (6-foot, 310-pound senior center Juan Shaw).
“We are going to try to be competitive against MRA,” said McLendon, who said he will dress 32 or 33 players for the opener. “This game will help us get some game experience because we are young. Most of these guys did get to play some last year and saw guys in front of them be successful so I think they have a lot of potential. They know what winning looks like over the past two years. I hope by the end of the season we will be able to do well in our class.”
Greenville Christian not only plays MRA in 6A, but also 6A teams Jackson Academy, Jackson Prep and Hartfield during the regular season.
McLendon is expecting good things from junior defensive back Patrick Travis, who started against Oak Grove last season, and senior wide receiver Tae Myles. Greenville Christian also has five transfers, the most promising one of senior wide receiver Jadan Davis from MHSAA Class 1A South Delta.
For MRA, the Patriots lost not only Dalton and Blanton, who are playing at Southern Miss and South Carolina respectively, but also second-team All-Metro selections, offensive lineman Rush Bland, now at Northeast Mississippi CC, and defensive back Cam Covey, now running track at Southern Miss.
MRA does have more back than Greenville Christian, five returning starters each on offense and defense, led by White, a junior who has verbally committed to Southern Miss, completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 3,935 yards for 39 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions in 14 last season. He transferred to MRA from Winona Christian School before his sophomore year.
The other returning starters on offense are wide receiver Rivers Godwin, tight end Pax Hughes and offensive lineman Mason McCrory, who will be a three-year starter, and Cole Parker. Godwin had 30 catches for 476 yards and three TDs. Hughes had 15 catches for 241 yards and three TDs despite missing five games.
The returning defensive starters are senior linebackers Bennett Cloud and Jeffrey Polk, senior defensive backs JJ Latham and Noah Short and senior defensive lineman Alex Hillhouse. Polk led the team with 112 tackles. Hillhouse tied Blanton with a team-high 10 sacks and led the team with two fumble recoveries.
MRA has been dominating in the MAIS over the past several years, winning 41 of its last 42 games against MAIS competition. Its only loss during that streak was to Greenville Christian. MRA has won 30 of its last 33 games, all three losses to three state champions from Mississippi (Greenville Christian), Tennessee (Public school Class 6A and nationally ranked Oakland) and Arkansas (Class 2A Pulanski Academy).
Davis, who is entering his 26th season overall and 10th at MRA, wants to keep the winning tradition going.
Davis, who was inducted into the MAIS Hall of Fame this past weekend, is the only football coach in Mississippi history to take five schools (MRA, Brookhaven Academy, Pillow, Heritage and Winston) to state championship games. Davis has won 220 games in his career.
“Our biggest challenge is to get these younger guys up to par fast,” Davis said. “We have different players every year and that means developing new team chemistry. Some of them have watched our older guys win, now they must realize they are ones who are going to have to make a play.”
MRA had two other starters from last season, leading rusher Quincy Phillips and 6-5, 290-pound offensive lineman Jimothy Lewis, who transferred to Brandon High and IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., respectively. Phillips led MRA with 530 yards and 12 TDs and caught 19 passes for 214 yards and two TDs this past season as a freshman. Lewis, who started at offensive tackle last season as a sophomore, is rated as the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country in the Class of 2024 by 247 Sports.