Manning Junior High School entered Wednesday's Sumter Middle School Conference football championship game in a familiar position, a 5-2 team facing off with a regular-season champion with a 7-0 record.
After coming up short last season in a 20-12 loss to Alice Drive Middle School, it was MJHS's turn to hoist the championship trophy as the Monarchs pulled away late for a 28-16 victory over Bates Middle School at Lakewood High School's J. Frank Baker Stadium.
"It feels great," MJHS head coach Brian Joyner said of coming away with a championship in his second SMSC title game in as many years leading the Junior Monarchs program. "I've got a great group of kids, a great group of coaches, good administration, I couldn't ask for more. I'm so happy for them."
MJHS took the opening kickoff and, in a theme that would continue throughout the game, went for it on fourth down unsuccessfuly after a fake punt attempt. After turning the ball over on downs near midfield, the Bantams scored shortly after on a 21-yard K'Shawn Boyd run. The score was set up by a 16-yard pass from Keion Brown to Boyd, with Brown adding a 2-point conversion run for an 8-0 Bates lead with 1:48 to go in the opening quarter.
It didn't take long for the Monarchs to respond as a personal foul against the Bantams on the ensuing kickoff set the ball at the Bates 36. On the next play, Montez Kennedy broke free and took it all the way for the score. Kennedy was stopped short on the conversion attempt, leaving the score at 8-6.
Bates took over at its 32 and lost nine yards on a Brown run to end the quarter. From that point on, the entire second quarter would be contested in Bates territory as the teams combined for four unsuccessful fourth-down conversion attempts in the 8-minute frame.
The MJHS defense came up big on fourth down as Latrell McCray charged through the line uncontested for a sack of Brown, giving the Monarchs the ball at the Bates 20. Irvin Mares ran for 10 and seven yards on the next two plays, setting up a 3-yard run by Michael Brunson. Javier Tricoche ran it in for two, giving MJHS a 14-8 lead that would stand at halftime.
The Bantams came out of the break fast as Boyd returned the kickoff 75 yards to the Monarch 5, with Mares diving for the shoestring tackle to save the touchdown. Brown took it in from there on the next play, with Jaylin White adding the conversion run for a 16-14 Bates lead.
Another failed fourth-down attempt deep in their own territory came back to bite the Bantams later in the third quarter as the Monarchs took over at the 21. Four plays later, Mares broke around left end for a 15-yard scoring run, putting MJHS up 20-16 with 2:15 on the clock.
The final score of the game was set up by a Bates fumble on the last play of the third. The Monarchs opened the fourth quarter at their own 45 with Dylen Fordham breaking off runs of 22 and seven yards to quickly advance the ball to the Bates 26. MJHS was able to run off 4:42 of the quarter before putting it in on a 10-yard Tricoche run, with Fordham running in the conversion. The drive's big play was a 21-yard pass from Tricoche to Emmery Mouzon to the 6 that converted a fourth-and-15.
"The kids never stopped. That's a credit to them," Joyner said of his team's response to Bates' early scores in both halves. "They could have hung their heads a little bit, but they kept fighting and I couldn't be more proud of them."
Mares especially stood out for MJHS as he handled kickoff duties, ran the ball effectively, came up with an offensive fumble recovery and hustled to make the tackle on Boyd's near score to open the second half.
"He's all over the field for us. He's one of our best players," Joyner said of Mares. "He's a great kid, great player, got a big future ahead of him. I thought Javier Tricoche, our quarterback, did a great job running it, our defensive ends -- Dylen Fordham and Latrell McCray -- did a great job off the edge, our secondary did a tremendous job, our running backs -- Dylen Fordham again and Montez Kennedy -- came through running the ball hard for us. It was just a good team effort."
Even with the loss, 2017 was definitely a successful season for Bates as the Bantams took home the regular season championship trophy and head coach Donnie Flippin was named SMSC coach of the year.
"We leaned on a lot of our eighth-graders, Keion Brown and K'Shawn Boyd and Jabarri Tiller, Jaylin White, Jerome Vance, a couple of guys that have been our go-to guys all season," Flippin said. "We were sticking with a tough Manning team -- they're big, they're strong, they're physical and well coached -- we had momentum heading into the fourth quarter, we were driving and then the late fumble kind of took momentum away from us and then Manning was able to seal it. I'm proud of their efforts, they didn't give up and we had a great season, great group of kids and I was proud to have coached a team with such good character."