By Mary Woodward
STARKVILLE – On a damp, blustery Friday, Dec. 5, two Catholic schools took to the gridiron for a state championship football game. The title game was played on a grand scale – Scott Field at Davis-Wade Stadium on the campus of Mississippi State University (MSU).
Natchez Cathedral Green Wave and Vicksburg St. Aloysius Flashes met in what was dubbed the “Fish Bowl” by many pundents of the day because of our Catholic tradition of eating fish on Friday.
Cathedral ultimately won the spirited and hard-fought game, 49-14, under the leadership of Coach Ron Rushing and four touchdowns by senior quaterback Wyatt Boothe. Juniors Jardarius Carpenter and Dee Fleming also scored for the Green Wave.
According to MaxPreps statistics, a CBS sports system, Fleming finished the 2014 season as the scoring leader in Division 1A south with 146 points. He amassed 875 yards rushing. Boothe finished the season with more than 1,400 yards passing. Carpenter hauled in 559 yards in receptions.
St. Aloysius quarterback, Senior Connor Smith, led the Flashes to two long scoring drives as Coach Bobby Smithhart and a section of vocal fans cheered vociferously. The Flashes put together several scoring opportunities but were not able to capitalize as often as they would have liked.
MaxPreps has Connor passing for 1109 yards, rushing for 1288 yards and scoring 102 points. DeMichael Harris, wide receiver and defensive back, led Division 1A North in total points at 164 and an amazing 2062 yards rushing.
Including this championship game, the two teams have met on the field 52 times. The schools are now even in wins at 26 each in their competitions.
Catherine Cook, diocesan superintendent of schools, who was present at the game, remarked that Catholic schools use sports as a way to develop leadership skills and build character among young people. “Our schools provide quality academic programs to students. We also use athletics to inspire and motivate young people to work hard to reach their full potential,” Cook said.
“This is an exciting day for all involved in educating and forming our young people through Catholic schools. It shows teamwork and dedication can lead to great things,” Cook added.
The game began with the traditional coin toss and introduction of team members. Each team was led by its mascot and cheerleaders in a stampede to the bench area.
Father Tom Lalor, pastor of Vicksburg St. Paul Parish, offered the invocation. In his prayer Father Lalor prayed for the safety of all the players, coaches and fans. He gave thanks for the gift of Catholic education and then asked the Lord to send down his Spirit to guide the competitors to be vigiliant and exhibit good sportsmanship. After the prayer all joined in the singing of the national anthem and then the players took to the field.
Cathedral received the opening kickoff and Carpenter returned it to the seven yard line of St. Aloysius. The Green Wave scored two plays later. St. Aloysius evened the score on an ensuing first quarter drive.
Late in the first half, MSU Head Coach Dan Mullen came out and visited with fans on both sidelines. The Bulldogs coach signed hats and programs and posed for photos and “selfies” with young fans and some not so young. Mullen was recently named 2014 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Coach of the Year.
Mullen is a Catholic School graduate, having attended St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary and Trinity High School in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. In 1988, he led Trinity to the state championship.
During halftime the Green Wave cheerleaders and drill team entertained the Natchez fans. Then the St. Aloysius band and drill team took the field and wowed the Vicksburg crowd.
Both teams exhibited skill and finesse but in the end Cathedral came away with the victory. St. Aloysius finished the year with a 15-3 record overall and an 8-0 record in their division. Cathedral finished the season at 16-1 overall and 8-0 in their division.
At the end of the game, teams and coaches lined up and shook hands. St. Aloysius players and coaches were awarded silver medals and a trophy by MHSAA officials. Cathedral coaches and players received a game ball, gold medals and the coveted gold ball trophy. It was the first state football final for Natchez Cathedral in its history.
In some circles, football is considered the state religion. Mississippi families are often torn when it comes to team loyalty and bragging rights.
The Catholic Church defines mixed marriages as marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. In Mississippi, a mixed marriage is a household with an Ole Miss and MSU graduate. These marriages can lead to some very contentious Thanksgiving holiday weekends.
In 2014, our state was treated to some unfamiliar territory on the football field. Both MSU and Ole Miss had stellar seasons and have finished ranked in the nation’s top 10 as seventh and ninth respectively. Even football fans who weren’t affiliated with either school joined in the weekly viewing parties.
On the high school level, football powerhouses exist in towns throughout the state including South Panola, Meridian, Madison, Clinton, etc. Division 6A schools get most of the press coverage for the fall season as smaller schools line up across from each other every week throughout the season working hard to make it to the “big dance” as they say.
Indeed, it is a rare day in Mississippi when two Catholic schools vie for a state title in any sport. Therefore it was a momentous occasion when both schools won their respective districts in the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s (MHSAA) Division 1A. St. Aloysius captured the State North title with a victory over Coffeeville; and Cathedral beat Nanih Waiya to win the State South crown.
In a new format all state title games will alternate between MSU’s stadium complex at Scott Field, which is marking its centennial in 2014, and Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Games were previously played in Jackson at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Though the crowd of more than 1500 was dwarfed by the 61,000+ capacity venue, fans cheered loudly for their teams and relished the fact that the two schools had made it to the big stage of SEC football.