By Billy Watkins
Hartfield Academy can win its first football state championship Saturday night by defeating Jackson Prep at Mississippi College.
The Hawks are 13-0 and defeated Prep 30-17 on Oct. 13 at Prep. But head coach Craig Bowman understands the task facing his team to finish the season unbeaten and whip tradition-rich Prep again.
He’s been straight up with his players this week about their chance to make school history. He told them: “Going 12-0 in the regular season can never be topped. But it won’t feel the same if we don’t finish the right way.”
Win or lose, Bowman vows to “take a breath next week and reflect on a season with so many special moments that don’t come around very often.
“I’ll be a pretty sad guy on Monday no matter how Saturday turns out. I love this team. They have been so much fun.
“We met last January and knew that we had a team that could make it to this game. We talked about trust over talent. We had the talent, but we had to build that trust in one another. Without it, you’ll fall short. And I can say that our players bought into it. This is a very close bunch that really loves one another and trusts one another. They enjoy hanging out away from football.”
That trust was tested Aug. 3 — eight days before the season opener — when the MAIS handed down sanctions against Hartfield for illegal recruiting. They were banned from postseason play.
Hartfield immediately appealed and three weeks later the ban was overturned.
“A lot of teams would’ve fallen apart during that time,” Bowman says. “Our team did not.”
On the morning of Oct. 10 — a Friday game day — senior team leader Chris Jones lost control of his car. The vehicle spun and rolled over. Jones suffered only a few bumps and scratches.
He played that night against high-powered MRA, even scored the game’s first touchdown. But in the second quarter, he suffered a sprained knee and was forced to watch as his team won a crazy shootout, 63-56.
“Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Chris asked for some crutches so he could stand with his teammates,” Bowman says. “He kept telling me, ‘We got this, Coach.’ ”
Two days later, the father of standout linebacker Reginald Vaughn died unexpectedly at the age of 44.
“The family went to wake him up that Sunday morning for church and he had passed,” Bowman says. “Of course it’s been tough on the family, but the team and the school have shown them so much love. And I think having football really helped Reggie during that time.”
Bowman was offensive coordinator in 2019 when Hartfield, which opened in 2012, won eight games for the first time.
The Hawks won nine games and reached the quarterfinals of the Class 5A playoffs the next season, Bowman’s first as head coach.
In 2021, they lost to MRA in the state championship game. But the Hawks beat Prep twice that year — their first victories over the Patriots.
Last year, they went 9-3 and defeated MRA and Jackson Academy for the first time.
“Our players respect those teams,” Bowman says, “but they’re not intimidated by them.”
Bowman, 44, played quarterback at Millsaps, then later served as quarterbacks coach at Belhaven and head coach at Canton Academy. He’s always loved offensive football, the planning and play calling. So it was a major decision for him this season when he promoted Pack Toler from head junior high coach to varsity offensive coordinator. He also relinquished play-calling duties to Toler.
“I thought it was the best thing for our team,” Bowman says. “My attention needed to be on both sides of the ball. Plus, Pack and I have been on the headsets together since 2019. We think alike and we have a great relationship. He’s done a wonderful job.”
Hartfield has scored at least 40 points in nine of its 13 games.
And there is no denying Hartfield’s exceptional talent.
Junior quarterback Cayman Tapper has thrown for 1,956 yards and 31 touchdowns. “He’s a football junkie, always studying film,” says Bowman. “And he shows zero emotion. He can handle criticism and hard coaching.”
Senior running back Reed Jesiolowski has rushed fo 1,794 yards and 22 TDs. He stands 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and runs a 4.5 40, according to Bowman.
Hartfield coaches and fans are thankful for a rainy night against Presbyterian Christian when Jesiolowski was still a wide receiver.
“It was so wet, we had a hard time getting him the ball,” Bowman recalls. “We sat him down at halftime and told him we were going to put him at running back. He knew our offense. And after watching him that night, we knew he needed to be there full time.”
Junior wide receiver Kenzy West averages 18 yards per catch. He has 48 receptions and 12 touchdowns.
Vaughn, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior, is rated one of the Top 10 defensive linemen in the 2025 recruiting class. Texas has already offered a scholarship. He has 73 tackles, nine sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He’s also blocked two punts.
Sophomore Bralan Womack has 17 total touchdowns, including nine as a wide receiver. He also has seven interceptions.
Jones has been a terror at middle linebacker with 104 tackles. The 6-foot, 215 pounder runs a 4.5 and, in Bowman’s words, is “the best player and the hardest worker.” Teammates often refer to him as “Coach Chris.”
“He definitely checks all the boxes,” Bowman says.
Jones and Jesiolowski are committed to Southern Miss. Vaughn, who has 74 tackles at linebacker, has been offered by Texas.
While Hartfield is going for its first state championship, Prep (10-3) is seeking its 27th. Doug Goodwin’s team won it last year in his first season as head coach.
“And that’s one of the big differences between us and Prep,” Bowman says. “Prep has a long tradition. They’ve got kids wearing the same number that their dads and grandfathers wore at Prep. And the players on their team now remember watching Prep win championships when they were little kids. It’s all they’ve known.
“We’re trying to build that.”
But Bowman isn’t looking ahead this week. He’s enjoying every second of preparing for a title game, things as simple as having to turn on the field lights to finish practice.
“To me, that’s playoff football,” he says. “Just like these dreary, drizzly days we’ve been having. Man, that’s the way football was meant to be played.”