With sand lining the sides of the soggy field, the Maroon Tide rolled in and swept Laurel out of the playoffs, 41-22, on Friday night.
Kade Turnage had two touchdown runs and returned an interception for a momentum-swinging score in the second quarter as Picayune punched its ticket to the South State championship game.
Sophomore quarterback Xavier Evans ran for a score and he had two TD passes — and two interceptions — as Laurel ended its season at 10-4.
The Tide (11-3) advances to play another team from Jones County for the South State title next Friday. West Jones (11-2) was a surprise 37-14 winner over No. 1 Hattiesburg (13-1) just down the road.
“That interception in the first half was a real momentum-changer,” Picayune coach Dodd Lee said. “We thought they were primarily a running team, so we were focused on stopping the run.”
Turnovers were the difference, Laurel coach Todd Breland agreed.
“We didn’t make the plays,” he said. “You can’t make mistakes against a team like this and expect to win. We knew we would have to play almost perfect, and in life and football, it’s tough to be perfect. It just wasn’t our night.”
The teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter, with Turnage scoring from 5 yards out to cap Picayune’s 13-play, 66-yard opening drive.
Evans answered for the Golden Tornadoes when he sprinted for a 42-yard score to tie it at 7 going into the second quarter.
Picayune quarterback Jakail Myers punched it in from a yard out to finish off a 14-play, 75-yard drive midway through the second quarter. The extra point was no good and the Tide led 13-7.
A minute later, Turnage snagged an Evans pass at midfield and sprinted in for the score. Isaac Brice’s extra point made it 20-7 in favor of the Tide going into the locker room.
The teams traded punts to start the second half. Juvonta Raymond intercepted another Laurel pass at midfield, and three plays later, Myers scored on a 2-yard keeper. That TD was set up by Jortin Raine’s twisting, turning 44-yard run. The senior had 28 carries for 218 yards.
The Tornadoes pulled to within 27-13 after Zias Perryman scored on a 48-yard catch-and-run on third-and-28 and William Mora booted his second extra point with 1:34 remaining in the third quarter.
But the Tide put together a quick six-play, 67-yard drive, with Turnage bulling his way for a 15-yard score up the middle, battling for the last yard to stretch over the goal line.
Picayune’s defense pushed the Tornadoes’ offense back and back on their next possession, forcing them into a third-and-40. But Evans found Bryce Page for a 20-yard gain, then threw a 30-yard scoring strike to Jontarius Henderson on fourth-and-20. Levi Walker’s two-point run pulled Laurel within 12 points, 34-22, with 5:40 remaining.
But the Tide recovered the onside kick, and six plays later, Raine dashed in from 14 yards out and Brice’s kick gave the visitors a 41-22 cushion with 2:37 left.
With senior quarterback Sinclair Ulmer in the game, Picayune’s Juvonta Raymond picked off a pass to wrap it in maroon and white.
A Laurel win would have set up a rematch with archrival West Jones with a 5A state championship game at Southern Miss on the line. Breland said that wasn’t mentioned as a motivating factor for his team at halftime.
“I didn’t even know the score until just now,” he said, minutes after he finished talking to his team on the field. “I wouldn’t trade this team for any team on the planet.”
Asked if he was surprised to be playing West Jones instead of Hattiesburg, Lee said, “We don’t care who we play. I’m just glad the kids have the opportunity to play another one.”
The Tide lost a heartbreaker to Laurel, 42-35, to end their season last year. But revenge wasn’t a factor, Lee insisted.
“Nothing was even said about that,” he said. “We want to beat whoever we’re playing.”