It’s a brand-new world for Hattiesburg High this fall.
For the first time in school history, the Tigers won’t be competing in the state’s largest classification this season.
Reclassification last fall dropped HHS from Class 6A to Class 5A, where the Tigers will be playing in Region 4-5A, along with such schools as Picayune, Pearl River Central and Pascagoula.
But that is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Moving from 6A to 5A, we expect to compete extremely well in our division,” said HHS coach Tony Vance, who enters his third season at the Tigers’ helm.
“I think, top to bottom, 5A may be the toughest class of them all, so the competition definitely didn’t get any easier.”
Hattiesburg was a playoff team the past two seasons in 6A, despite a so-so overall record that was the result of a brutal non-region schedule.
This year, confidence is high among the Tiger faithful, largely surrounding the return of a pair of gifted skill players who emerged last season as sophomores, quarterback Julian Conner and tailback Xavier Yancey.
Conner completed 146 of 278 passes (52.5 percent) for 2,077 yards and 24 touchdowns, and rushed for 532 yards and 10 scores. Yancey carried the ball 222 times for 1,249 yards and 16 TDs.
“Without a doubt, they’re going to be our leaders,” Vance said.
“They put up some really good numbers last year as sophomores. They’re both just solid. They work extremely hard, and we’re excited about what they bring to our football team.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is Conner and Yancey are the only starters returning for the Tigers on offense, and the graduation losses were most acute on the offensive line and at wide receiver.
The only wideout with any experience is junior Jordan Murphy, who caught 10 passes for 116 yards last season.
Up front, Hattiesburg has to replace all its starters.
But the Tigers are not without some experience on the line, led by senior Jalen Samuel and junior Jamarcus Holmes, who played last year in reserve roles.
“Those are two guys who have been in the program now for three years, and they understand what we want,” Vance said. “They’ve bought in from day one, and they’ve become great leaders.”
Fortunately, Hattiesburg does have plenty of talent returning on defense, led by its defensive line, where all four starters are back.
Senior defensive tackle C.J. Anderson was second on the team last season with 73 tackles, including seven for loss, and senior Devin Lang had 50 tackles last year, including 13 for loss, and a team-high six sacks.
The Tigers will be relatively young at the linebacker position, where junior Reggie Williams is the only player returning with any significant experience after totaling 40 tackles last season, five for loss.
However, Hattiesburg returns a pair of veterans in the secondary in seniors Braxton Brown, who will be starting for the third season as a cornerback, and Demarcus Gaines.
They will look to improve on last year’s total of 11 interceptions.
The Tigers will face another tough schedule this season, including longtime foes Laurel, Oak Grove and Petal, and HHS also must travel to face defending Class 3A state champion Collins.
But Vance thinks he’s got his team in the right frame of mind to make a strong playoff run.
“It’s been an exciting offseason,” Vance said. “I think by the time the playoffs roll around, we have a chance to be as good as anybody.”
•Coach: Tony Vance
•Record: 9-15 (3rd season)
•Last season: 5-7 overall, 4-3 region (lost in first round of 6A playoffs)
•State championships: None
•Assistant coaches: Michael Dogan, Chris Gale, Jimmy Gandy, Donovan Tate, Ta’Ron Sims, Archie Gibbs, Stephen Jordan
•Shoes to fill: OL Anthony Eashmond, OL Rishard Cook, WR Joronnie Hinton, DL Bradston Burnside, LB Phillip Anderson
•Players to watch: QB Julian Conner, RB Xavier Yancey, DL C.J. Anderson, DL Sigmund Lewis, DB Braxton Brown
•The skinny: The Tigers must rebuild their offensive line and wide receiving corps, but there are enough talented skill players returning to make Hattiesburg a threat to go a long way in Class 5A.