'Cade's Belt'

West Jones survived a late surge from Laurel to win the Leader-Call’s Battle for the Belt championship, 24-21. But the victory seemed insignificant in comparison to the loss of fellow Mustang Cade Thompson last Wednesday. The Mustangs honored their fallen teammate by marching onto the field in silence with a No. 56 banner. 

After the game, injured West Jones linebacker Ken Russell presented head coach Scott Pierson with the championship belt and a number of players could be heard saying, “That’s Cade’s belt.” After the game, the game ball was given to Thompson’s memory.

“This one goes to Cade,” Pierson said as he addressed his team after the game. “I can’t be more proud of a team than I am for what y’all did this week. Heavy hearts, and you still came and put it all on the line for that family. I know they appreciate it. Winning and losing is fine, guys, but what you showed today was grit, heart, determination and love for a family. You did an awesome job. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tickled to have this thing around my waist, but I don’t give two rips about it compared to what I saw this week.”

The Mustangs were clearly motivated to honor Thompson, but Laurel came with every intention of taking the belt for the second straight year. On the opening possession, Laurel’s Kiron Benjamin fumbled after mishandling a handoff from Javonte Caldwell, allowing the Mustangs to recover. But on the next play, a West Jones fumble gave Laurel the ball right back. Four plays later, Benjamin scored on a 4-yard run on fourth-and-goal. John Gonzalez’s extra point gave the Tornadoes a 7-0 lead with 4:14 left in the first quarter.

In the second quarter, the Mustangs scored 21 unanswered points to take a 21-7 lead into halftime. 

Joshua McDonald took a carry up the middle 36 yards for West Jones’ first score. Joseph Hernandez knotted the score at 7 with 9:58 left. Five minutes later, quarterback Marlon Lindsey called his own number on a 10-yard touchdown run, and Antwoine Gavin dragged a Laurel defender at the goal line with 17 seconds left to put the Mustangs up by two scores. Hernandez was true on both extra points. 

Despite his team's 21-7 lead, Pierson believes Laurel showed more in the first half. 

“In the first half, Laurel beat us everywhere but the scoreboard,” Pierson said. “We were able to take advantage of turnovers and execute there, though.”

The Mustangs extended their lead when Hernandez booted a 30-yard field goal with 9:25 left in the third quarter, but they sputtered offensively for the rest of the game. 

“We went into a shell offensively,”  Pierson said. “Again, it's a crosstown rivalry, and with everything going on, I am just glad we finished.”

Leading 24-7 with a defense that had played excellent, the game seemed well in hand even as the Mustang offense stalled. However, Laurel would not go quietly. With 6:18 left in the game, Caldwell hit TJ Jones in the back of the end zone for a 21-yard score. Gonzalez hit the extra point to narrow the margin to 24-14.

Benjamin put the Tornadoes within striking distance with a 4-yard touchdown run with just 2:56 left in the game. Gonzalez put the Tornadoes within three points with his extra point.

But the Mustangs regained possession and sealed the game when Gavin took a direct snap on a third down and ran down the sideline for a 34-yard gain. 

With the absence of Russell at linebacker, the West Jones defense was noticeably different but was able to contain an explosive Laurel offense. Russell suffered a season-ending knee injury leading up to the game. 

“I think there was a big loss out there,” Pierson said of Russell not suiting up. “The guys we had in there were doing the best they could, but we lost probably the best player I have ever coached. That’s a big reason we weren’t able to keep people from getting to the perimeter. The kids we had in there only had one week to prepare, but he has played that position since he was a freshman. So no one else has started a game there for us since then.”

Laurel head coach Ryan Earnest was proud of his team’s effort and expressed his condolences to the West Jones community.

“It’s always a great game between our two teams, but this week was so much bigger than football,” Earnest said. “Our hearts go out to everyone at West Jones this week.”

Laurel (4-4, 3-2) will host Wayne County on Friday. A loss could potentially eliminate the Tornadoes from postseason contention. West Jones (7-1, 5-0) will go on the road to face Hattiesburg after securing its biggest win of the season. 

“I don’t know about the win, I really don’t,” Pierson said. “I am just so proud of the way our kids competed and honored their fallen brother. Much respect to Laurel for the way they competed, and it was a great ballgame, which it always is. There was just so much more involved this week. I don’t know – I’m spent.”

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