Story By Robert Wilson
Photos by Matt Bush (Gallery at bottom of the page)
Greenville Christian School
Play It Again Sports – Hattiesburg, MS
Senior quarterback D.J. Smith passed for 305 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 125 yards and four TDs to lead defending MAIS Class 3A Greenville Christian School to 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 Friday night before a standing room only crowd of 6,500 at Warrior Stadium in Hattiesburg.
Greenville Christian, ranked No. 3 in Mississippi by MaxPreps, surprised Oak Grove, ranked No. 1 in Mississippi and ranked No. 79 in the country by MaxPreps and No. 75 in the nation by High School America, and broke the Warriors’ 16-game winning streak – the longest in Mississippi. Greenville Christian improved to 4-1 with its only loss to Collins Hill, Ga., High, ranked No. 7 in the nation by MaxPreps, in the Freedom Bowl in Atlanta two weeks ago. Greenville Christian has now won 16 consecutive games against Mississippi competition. The Saints defeated two-time MAIS Class 6A state champion Madison-Ridgeland Academy 58-32 to end MRA’s 19-game winning streak in the season opener this year. By comparision, MRA lost to defending Tennessee Class 6A public school state champion Oakland 31-13 two weeks later. Oakland is ranked No. 13 in the nation by High School America. Many consider Greenville Christian one of the best MAIS teams in history.
Oak Grove dropped to 3-1 and had won 24 of its last 25 coming into this game. The Warriors have played in the 6A state championship game for the last three seasons, losing in 2018 and 2019 and winning in 2020. Oak Grove has won more games in the past six seasons than any Class 6A team in Mississippi.
The first public-private football game in Mississippi history was in 2001 when George County from the MHSAA defeated Jackson Prep from the MAIS 27-14 at Prep in Flowood. There have been at least a hundred public-private football games since then, but none between teams of this caliber.
Greenville Christian had an open date this week because Northpointe Christian School in Southaven called Greenville Christian coach Jon Reed McLendon several weeks ago and said they weren’t going to be able to play. Oak Grove had an open date this week before Class 6A, Region 3 plays begins next week. McLendon posted on Twitter that he was looking for a game and Oak Grove coach Drew Causey saw it, called McLendon and asked Greenville Christian to play.
Both coaches praised the other team for their play and were happy they were able to play this game.
“The atmosphere was great,” said McLendon, who is in his eighth year at Greenville Christian. “A lot of highs and lows on both sides. Huge momentum swings. Back and forth scoring. Some incredible athletes on both sids. It’s everything you want in a high school game. Probably the best game I”ve ever been a part of. Their fans were so loud. They had a really inspired student section that was into it the whole way. We had a great crowd on our side that came a long way to support us. There is great high school football in Mississippi and tonight is a perfect example.”
“Both teams played hard and both teams have a lot of talented players,” said Causey, who has a 67-23 record (74.4 percent) in his seventh season at Oak Grove. “Greenville Christian just made a couple of more plays than we did and that was the difference.” Greenville Christian won the MAIS Class 3A state title by 32 points over Carroll Academy and won its last nine games by an average of 36 points last season so McLendon went looking for better competition. He scheduled MAIS Class 6A teams MRA, Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy and the Freedom Bowl with Collins Hill. Greenville Christian hasn’t had a close game yet except for Collins Hill before tonight. Greenville Christian has 17 starters returning, many of those who transferred from Greenwood High, Greenville High, and Greenville O’Bannon High last year since those public schools did play fall sports because of covid.
Greenville Christian made the 3 ½ hour bus ride down to Hattiesburg to see how it stacked up against the best public school team in Mississippi. The Saints proved they were for real. Greenville Christian produced 625 total yards. Smith, who passed for 2,581 yards and 30 touchdowns and ran for 903 yards and 12 TDs while playing only an average of three quarters per game in his 10 games last season, had another superb performance. He completed 21 of 37 passes for his 305 yards and connected with senior wide receiver and Southern Miss commitment Chris Bell on TD passes of 75 and 60 yards. Smith ran 16 times for his 125 yards and four TDs. He has now passed for 1,368 yards and 14 TDs and ran for 587 yards and nine TDs in four games (Hillcrest Christian forfeited to Greenville Christian last week because of shortage of players). Smith has Division I offers from Southern Miss, Mississippi Valley, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, and McNeese State. Bell, who transferred from Yazoo City this year, caught four passes for 149 yards and two TDs and has caught 18 passes for 506 yards, an average of 28.1 yards per catch, and eight TDs this season. Other Division I programs are paying attention to Smith and Bell. Maryland has offered Bell recently and Ole Miss and Mississippi State are showing interest.
Senior running back Marlon Palmer gained 195 yards on 16 carries to compliment Smith’s passing and running.
Oak Grove sophomore defensive back P.J. Woodland, who returned a kickoff 85 yards for a TD in the second quarter, intercepted pass and returned it 30 yards for a TD to give Oak Grove a 41-34 lead with 2 minutes to play in the third quarter. Oak Grove never scored again. Smith scored his fourth TD with about 6 minutes to play in the game for a 48-41 lead. Oak Grove fumbled at the Greenville Christian 45 with 2:36 to play and failed on fourth down at the Greenville Christian 45 with 1:18 to play. Greenville Christian ran out the clock for the win. Oak Grove finished with only 304 yards, less than half of what Greenville Christian’s 625. “I was so proud how our kids continued to fight,” McLendon said. “We certainly had some adversity to battle through and they kept their heads down and continued to push. We made some mistakes, didn’t make it easy on ourselves a lot of times, but in the end we did what we had to do to come way with a win. Marlon was huge tonight. DJ did what he always does. Chris contines to show that he’s an elite playmaker. It took every kid tonight. It was a total team win. It was an unbelievable night.”
Oak Grove senior quarterback Kabe Barnett passed for 189 yards and two TDs and junior running back J.Q. Gray had 189 yards and two TDs. Senior wide receiver Tyrell Pollard caught three passes for 93 yards. Barnett threw for 2,384 yards and 35 TDs with only five interceptions last season.