PRCC looks to regain top spot

Published 11:30 pm Saturday, August 30, 2008

After winning four straight MACJC state football championships from 2003 through 2006, Pearl River Wildcat football hit a stunning bump in the road a year ago.

Entering the 2007 season ranked No. 1 by the NJCAA pollsters for the third straight year, PRCC wound up dropping an uncharacteristic three games — by a combined total of 19 points — and missed out on the post-season playoffs all together for the first time since head coach Tim Hatten took over the program in 2002.

But Hatten, who is 53-10 in six seasons at The River, says his 2008 crew is as talented as ever, so don’t be surprised if it rises back to the top of the league.

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“We were our own worst enemy last year,” Hatten said. “We never established any consistency on offense, particularly at the quarterback position. Plus we turned the ball over way, way too many time. Even though we finished with a plus-four in turnovers, we fumbled it away 10 times and threw 21 interceptions in our nine games.

“You’ve got the take care of the football…that’s the bottom line.”

The Wildcats, 6-3 a year ago, are ranked 13th in this year’s NJCAA preseason poll, while MACJC South Division rivals Mississippi Gulf Coast, the defending national co-champion with preseason No. 1 Butler (Kan.), and Jones County are second and third, respectively. North Division power Itawamba is 20th, while Northwest Mississippi and Southwest Mississippi received votes in the balloting.

“It (ranking) is what it is,” Hatten said. “There’s nothing you can do about something like that. The main thing is just getting in it (poll). We were the preseason No. 1 for three straight years, but after missing the playoffs last season, it’s understandable that we wouldn’t be ranked at or near the top.

“But if we take care of our own business on game day, we’ll be okay.”

Top-ranked Butler, who PRCC defeated 35-14 in the Dalton Defenders Bowl for the 2004 national title in Coffeyville, Kan., tangles with preseason No. 2 Blinn (Tex.) to open the 2008 season, while the Wildcats open with Holmes Thursday, Aug. 28, in Poplarville, then travel to Northeast Mississippi in Booneville before returning home to host Northwest Mississippi.

Rival Hinds hosts PRCC Sept. 18 in Raymond to open the South Division schedule, while Mississippi Gulf Coast visits the following week.

“It’s very possible that Perk (MGCCC) could be the No. 1 team in the nation when they play us the fifth week,” Hatten said. “Then we’ll play Jones the next week on the road in Ellisville. Like I’ve already said, we’ve just got to worry the Wildcats. Just take each game one at a time, take care of our own business, and we can be right at the top or at the top of the poll by the time the post-season rolls around.”

Only return eight starters — four on offense, four on defense — from a year ago, but Hatten boasts a sizeable number of other players who got in valuable playing time.

Offensively, running back-wide receiver Ike Bowden of Poplarville High, wide receiver Jerry Duncan of Petal High, and linemen Charvo Lampton of Columbia High and James Siefker of Northwest Lauderdale return.

Freshman Emil Jones of North Forrest and redshirt freshman Kirk Lance of Oak Grove are in a heated battle for the starting quarterback spot.

“At this point, Kirk is probably a little bit ahead of Emil, but he’s been around here for a year. Emil’s doing fine and they’ll both see playing time,” Hatten said. “We’ve still got a long way to go and a lot can happen between now and the season opener.”

Wide receiver Tavaris Cadet of Miami, Fla., a redshirt freshman transfer from the University of Toledo, also took snaps under center in spring drills.

Sophomore running backs Georgio Hall of Prentiss High and Brandon Peters of Poplarville High also return.

Duncan is the only returning starter at wide receiver, while sophomores Drew Ezell of Oak Grove and P.J. Nixon of Pearl River Central are back along with soph Ray Chisolm of North Forrest, who sat out last season after suiting up with the Wildcats in 2006.

Top newcomers at the receiving position include freshmen Keith Lomon of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Desmond Ratcliff from Canton, Sam Robinson of Sebring, Fla., Charves Virgil of Oak Grove, and Matt Williams of Poplarville High.

Other offensive linemen include Florida State transfer Tyler Graves of Sumrall High, Jacob Whitehead of Pearl River Central, and Levi Slayton of Picayune High, who was moved to the O-line after seeing lots of playing time at defensive end last season.

New defensive coordinator Casey Cain boasts a super-talented unit with linemen Darius Hart of Poplarville High and Alton Lee of Forrest County AHS back in starting roles, along with linebacker Hendrick Leverette, an Auburn transfer from Oak Grove, and safety Devin McNair of Petal High.

Sophomore Johnny Roberts of Hattiesburg High returns and could start on the D-line, while Charles Deas of Fr. Lauderdale, Fla., and Donel Smith of Picayune High are impressive new faces to the roster. Redshirt freshmen Scadino Daniels of East Marion and Brandon Keyes of Hattiesburg High are expected to earn starting roles.

Sophomore linebacker Daniel Payton of Oak Grove got plenty of playing time a year ago, along with soph Frank Newsome III of Petal High has been moved to linebacker from the safety position he played in ’07. Newcomers include Justin Flowers Huey Stockstill, both of Picayune High, Tyler Kittrell of Oak Grove, and Justin Raine of Poplarville High.

Three senior college transfers will join McNair in the secondary in Marcus Ball (Florida State) of Stone Mountain, Ga., Jamah Holder (Louisiana-Monroe) of Lumberton High, and Sharrod Murdock (Pittsburgh) of Tampa, Fla.; while sophomore Troy Hulbert of Ridgeland returns after seeing playing time last season. Freshman Rashod Henry of Lumberton will be on the roster after sitting out a year to play minor league baseball.

“That’s a talented bunch of guys right there…probably the most talent anywhere on the team,” Hatten said.

Other freshmen vying for starting spots include Johnny Dixon of Belle Glade, Fla., and Melvin Fennil of Sumrall High.

Sophomore Cody Carlson of Gulfport, who’s a standout defender on the PRCC soccer team, will handle the kickoff and place kicking duties; while he and (Matt) Williams are battling it out for the punting job.

Henry will also be the primary return guy.

“We need a great kicking game,” Hatten said. “That’s something that’s been one of our worst areas in the past few years. When you can control field position, you’re already one up on your opponent.”

John Creech returns for his sixth season as defensive line and strength and conditioning coach, while Leroy Frederick enters his second year coaching the wide receivers. Drew Causey, who played for the Wildcats in 2000 and 2001 before transferring to North Alabama, is the new offensive line coach, replacing seven-year O-line mentor Buddy Stephens who is entering his first season as East Mississippi’s head coach.

Melvin Tart, a Wildcat wide receiver in 2001 and 2002, returns for a fourth year and will assist Frederick; while Irvin Jackson, a PRCC football alum in 2004 and 2004 before transferring to the University of Ohio, returns to The River as secondary coach.

Cain replaces long-time coordinator William Jones, who is now at East Mississippi with Stephens.

Former Pearl River, Louisiana-Monroe, and New England Patriot standout Larry Whigham, who coached the secondary and special teams the last two seasons, resigned his post in early August. He is a member of the PRCC Sports Hall of Fame.