Photo by Hays Collins

By Robert Wilson

MADISON – For all those high school fans, coaches and players who thought three-time defending MAIS Class 6A state champion Madison-Ridgeland Academy might be down after losing Under Armour All-American linebacker Stone Blanton and Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Player of the Year Davis Dalton to graduation, think again.

MRA looked everything like a team capable to winning another state championship Thursday night with a 48-6 victory over two-time MAIS Class 3A defending champion Greenville Christian School here at MRA’s Patriot Field in the first high school regular season in Mississippi this year.

MRA avenged last year’s 58-32 loss to Greenville Christian in the season opener, which ended a 19-game winning streak and a 22-game home winning streak. MRA, playing without Blanton, a 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. Greenville Christian quarterback DJ Smith, who went on to win the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year, passed for 329 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 214 yards on and two TDs and two two-point conversions in the MRA win. 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.

But Greenville Christian graduated 22 seniors – 18 of them who are playing college football, including Smith at Jones County Junior College and star wide receiver Chris Bell at the University of Louisville – from that team. MRA took advantage of Greenville Christian’s youth and inexperience Thursday.

MRA, with 10 returning starters (five each on offense and defense) from last year’s 10-3 state championship team, won its 11th straight game and looked as impressive as it did in its last win, a 42-7 victory over Hartfield Academy for the 6A state title. The Patriots have now won 42 of their last 43 games against MAIS competition, with the Greenville Christian last season the only loss. MRA has won 31 of its last 34 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) last season. MRA is playing Oakland and Pulanski this season.

MRA, behind junior quarterback and Southern Miss commitment John White’s accurate passing (14 of 19 for 164 yards and two TDs of 36 and 21 yards to speedy senior wide receiver Rivers Godwin) and senior running back JJ Latham’s two TD runs, rolled to a 34-0 halftime lead. White, the first team quarterback on the All-Metro Jackson team last season, had an impressive sophomore year (completing 67.9 percent of his passes for 3,935 yards for 39 TDs and only 14 interceptions).

MRA backup freshman quarterback Samuel Stockett completed TD passes to freshmen wide receivers Gunnar Swanson and Will Bizot in the second half to increase to the lead to 48-0.

Greenville Christian’s lone score came with 4 minutes to play when sophomore quarterback Aaron Lee completed a 66-yard TD pass to junior wide receiver Darius Williams. MRA defensive coordinator Danny White and his Patriot defense had held Greenville Christian to less than 100 total yards before the long score.

“We got off to a slow start and dropped several passes, but I was proud of our guys executing better and playing better,” said MRA coach Herbert Davis, who has won 221 games and six state titles in 26 seasons, including a school-record 86 wins and three state titles in 10 years at MRA. “Our offensive line picked up their blitzes better and I loved our balance (between rushing and passing). Both of our quarterbacks (White and Bennett) looked really good and make some good decisions and accurate throws. JJ played great. He’s had a great offseason, a good two-a-days and understands the game. JJ knows how to hit the holes and pick up yards for us. Tonight was a lot better than last year’s first game, but we know we’ve got a long way to go. We did a lot of good things tonight.”

One of the low points of the night for MRA was when senior tight end and Division I prospect Pax Hughes suffered an ankle injury after he caught his first pass in the first quarter. He didn’t return to the game.

“It was a tough night, certainly not what you want, but we will be ok,” Greenville Christian coach Jon Reed McLendon said. “We have a lot of growing up to do. These guys work hard, and I believe they’ve bought in. We just have to mature and learn how to prepare better. With this group, we sort of expected a slow start. There are some really good pieces. We’ll get things figured out.”

One bright spot for Greenville Christian was senior Tae Myles, who had 131 yards on five kickoff returns, an average of 26.2 yards per return, and put the Saints in great field position, several times near or beyond midfield.