Baker quarterback John Flowers has passed for 1,464 yards, run for 775 and accounted for 24 touchdowns. (Tom Deck/Call News)
Mary Montgomery quarterback Jared Hollins, like Flowers, has completed nearly 70% of his passes and accounted for 1,871 yards of total offense and 23 TDs. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
Baker’s Bryce Cain leads Class 7A with 729 yards receiving and is averaging 25 yards per catch. (Tom Deck/Call News)
Mary Montgomery All-State receiver James Bolton has seven TD receptions this year. He caught four in last week’s win over Davidson. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
The most anticipated game in the Baker-Mary G. Montgomery rivalry is already one for the history books before a football has left the ground but both coaches tried to put a bridle on the hyperbole and looked at what could be ahead after an overflow crowd departs and peace descends on Grider Stadium in Semmes late Friday night.
The 7 p.m. game that will likely decide the 7A Region 1 champion and provide vital home-field advantage in the playoffs to the winner marks the only time both teams have been ranked when they’ve played and the only time they have had just one loss between them this late in the season.
Between them, their offensive stars have poured out three miles of yardage, enough to have literally run from MGM to Big Creek Lake by the way the crow flies.
Footballs will be flying from two of the state’s top quarterbacks — the Hornets’ Josh Flowers, who has committed to Mississippi State, and the Vikings’ Jared Hollins, who has committed to South Alabama.
“It’s an intense rivalry and it’s great for the fans,” said MGM coach Zach Golson, whose team broke a 12-game losing streak to Baker last year. “To be honest, there is not any more intensity in our building this time than last year. It’s cool to be fighting for the region championship but our kids realized last year when the dust settled we were a one-point loss to Foley from being region champs. If you want to go deep in the playoffs, it’s an advantage to have home field in the first round and second round.”
The No. 4-ranked Vikings (7-0, 4-0) have won 13 straight regular-season games and are seeking to go 8-0 for the first time since 1965. The No. 7 Hornets (6-1, 4-0) are trying to go 7-1 for the first time since 1973.
“Our guys know it’s a big game but they understand there are so many more implications than just playing our crosstown rival,” Baker coach Steve Normand said. “The last few years in the playoffs, we’ve had to travel in the first round. Traveling instead of staying at home makes a big difference.”
The showdown will also match two of the most prolific offenses in the state and four of its best skill players.
Flowers and receiver Bryce Cain and Hollins and receiver James Bolton have combined for 5,341 yards and 66 touchdowns this season. Cain has committed to Auburn and Bolton has been offered by Marshall.
The Hornets are averaging 38 points per game and MGM 34 — both in the top 10 in 7A — although the Vikings have scored 40-plus points in their last three games, all since starting running back Troy Flowers was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Just as impressive is the fact MGM has only two turnovers all season .
“I don’t think we’ve peaked,” Golson said. “Even last week, we weren’t as clean as we’d like to be. We’re still trying to get better and that’s fun to see. We relish that.”
Normand has watched a lot of film on the Vikings and has had to rewind plenty of times to find errors.
“They’re so effective offensively, so clean,” he said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes or drop a lot of balls. They don’t go backward. They don’t just cycle to one receiver or hand off to one running back. They lost Flowers but it hasn’t stalled them at all. That’s a strong testament to coach Golson and their program. They spread the ball out a lot.”
Flowers and Hollins, both of whom are dangerous dual threats, will have the game in their hands. Flowers will want to avenge last year’s game, when he had an interception and a fumble which led to MGM touchdowns. Meanwhile, Hollins will continue seeking to avoid negative plays.
“The big challenge we gave him this week is controlling what you can control,” Golson said of Hollins. “He can’t control all the hype and he can’t control the officiating or the crowd noise but he’s doing a good job focusing on him and our other guys are doing it too. It’s going to be a great stage for a lot of people to see him.”
If Flowers and Hollins battle to a stalemate, the outcome may rest on how well the Vikings play Baker’s running game and how well they run the ball themselves with up to six backs, mainly Javion Hawthorne, Hollins and Shondell Harris.
Led by Flowers and Rod Taylor, the Hornets average 235 yards on the ground but MGM is allowing only 75 as linebackers John Robinson and Devin Pettway and safety Harris are adept at closing gaps and roaming sideline to sideline.
“Baker is very athletic and well coached,” Golson said. “We’ve got to fit the box correctly and when we get there, we’ve got to make the tackle and rally to the ball. And we’ve got to cover. We’ve got the athletic ability to match them. There’s going to be a lot of back and forth.”
The Vikings’ defense has become one of the state’s best, forcing 18 turnovers and allowing only 8.6 points per game, the second-best against the score in 7A.
“Their defense has not gotten the recognition they deserve,” Normand said. “They’re very fast and aggressive with their safeties and they cover well.”
Bolton and Cain will demand double teams, putting other receivers such as the Hornets’ Kevin Beckham and MGM’s Jaylin Culver in position to make plays.
Golson said his team has made those plays because his players have adopted a mindset of dominating every snap.
“It’s been fun to watch our kids prepare,” he said. “I think that’s something our coaches do a great job of teaching, to dominate every rep at every practice.”
Each team has trailed in only two games this year and Normand feels it’s important not to fall behind early to the Vikings.
“They’ve beaten teams very handily,” Normand said. “We want to control the clock and control the game. If they jump out on us, it’s going to be a long night for you.”
Golson would rather not see if MGM can come from behind in the fourth quarter but isn’t worried if it must.
“We’re comfortable if we get behind,” Golson said. “We’ll just keep playing and fighting for each other.”
The Vikings rallied last year to beat Baker 37-20 and Golson said that made MGM’s first win in the series since 2009 a pivotal juncture in the program.
“That was a huge moment for us, especially in the first half when they jumped on us,” Golson said. “Our guys still believed and there was no backing down. We had some adversity we overcame and in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, we played really well. That’s not something Mary G. teams in the past hung their hats on. I think that was a turning point to finish that way. We talked about it and we had to go out and execute it. It was following by faith more than anything. It made our guys realize we’ve got something special here.”
Golson got sentimental when reflecting on what could be the best season in school history, especially if the Vikings reach the Super 7.
“It’s week eight already,” he said. “It’s getting late in the year. We’re guaranteed three more games after this with these players and coaches. It’s kind of emotional to think about. We’d like it to be more than three but it’s no more than seven and we’ve already played seven. It reminds you time is not on our side. We’re just trying to take that in and enjoy the moment.”