The air was filled with emotion Friday night at Lake Cormorant, a school and community still reeling from the loss of middle linebacker Jaquarius Harper to an accidental shooting incident the previous Saturday morning.
Fans coming out for Friday's game between the Gators and defending MHSAA 5A state champion West Point were greeted by several tributes to Harper, who wore 34 on his black and green football jersey.
The number "34" was emblazoned on the field, for instance, and cheerleaders and fans all wore shirts with a black football outline, his name and number, and #playfortootie was also found around the stadium at "The Swamp."
The team came to the field with its own banner stating, "Long Live Tootie," and instead of running on to the gridiron, somberly walked to the sideline where a momentary prayer was said on Harper's behalf.
The tributes continued as the game began. The West Point school and football team recognized Harper with a banner signed by the players and a wood plaque in the shape of a football emblazoned with "R.I.P Jaquarius Harper #34" was given to the Lake Cormorant team, who then brought the plaque to the center of the field for the coin toss.
The middle linebacker for West Point, the same position Harper played, changed his uniform number and wore the number 34 in Harper's honor.
The game itself had its own respectful start to it, as well. West Point received the opening kickoff. Lake Cormorant coach Nick Nester and the Gators already had decided they would line up with only 10 defensive players on the field for the first play of the contest, adding an 11th player at the last moment before the snap, an action the officials were aware of.
But the Green Wave also added the remembrance of the senior linebacker and showed their respect for the opponents by the team and quarterback taking a knee for a loss of five yards on the initial snap of the contest.
After the tributes had finished, West Point showed why they are unbeaten and ranked among the top football teams in the state of Mississippi, winning the game by a 45-7 score.
Jason Brownlee scored a pair of first quarter touchdown pass receptions from quarterback Marcus Murphy, who later threw a 75-yard bomb to Jerni White for a score. Murphy himself scored on a 19-yard run and Chris Calvert carried for three touchdowns in the victory.
The bright spot on the scoreboard for Lake Cormorant came in the third quarter, when a fumble recovery near midfield led to a three-yard run for a touchdown by Jalen Jordan, a scoring play which at the time brought the Gators back within 25-7 for the Green Wave.
"We knew it was going to be tough coming into it," said Gators' coach Nick Nester. "I'm very proud of our guys because I know they had a lot on their minds with the funeral tomorrow (Saturday)."
Nester said playing the game Friday night came on the request of Harper's family.
"Jaquarius' mother wanted us to play for her son and that was big," Nester said. "She came and I met with her twice at her home and she came to school and she wanted us to play. I told the boys and they were all for it."
The win by the Green Wave sets up a battle of unbeatens this coming Friday, when Olive Branch comes to West Point.
The Conquistadors stayed perfect on the season with its 28-14 home victory over Grenada. Defense carried the day for the Quistors, which throttled Grenada after an opening touchdown gave the Chargers an early 6-0 lead. Olive Branch rebounded for a 14-6 halftime lead of its own.
The 28 points matched the lowest offensive output of the year by Olive Branch, equaled by the Quistors' 28-0 victory over DeSoto Central in its third game.
On the other end of the spectrum, Center Hill came through with its first victory of the year after six straight losses, a 20-9 victory over Saltillo on the Mustangs' home gridiron. The win marked the first time in four contests the Mustangs had scored more than one touchdown and the nine points scored by Saltillo was the lowest point total by an opponent this year against Center Hill.
Justin Buckingham scored one of the Center Hill touchdowns Friday night. Center Hill led 13-3 at halftime.
Horn Lake ran its season record to 6-0 and 3-0 in region play with a 28-2 thrashing of the Falcons at Columbus. The final score was both the lowest offensive result and lowest defensive scoring total of the year for the Eagles, which returns home to meet Oxford Friday night.
Standout Nakobe Dean scored one of the Eagles' touchdowns on a 50-yard run.
Tupelo, which Horn Lake may be playing late in the year for the MHSAA 6A-1 region title, continued its undefeated year with a 44-14 pasting of Southaven. The Golden Wave held the Chargers to just one first down in the entire first half, which came on a pass interference call and scored all of its points before the Chargers could get on the board late in the contest.
The 44 points are the most given up by Southaven this season. Amataii Hurt and Delvon Wray scored for the Chargers.
Hernando fell for the fourth straight time, a 33-19 loss to South Panola. Hernando took an early lead and Jon Burt added a touchdown for a 13-6 Hernando lead with nine minutes left in the half. South Panola recovered and took a 27-16 lead before a Hernando field goal cut the margin to 27-19.
In the private school ranks, Northpoint Christian dropped a 21-14 decision to University School of Jackson, Tenn. Zac Montgomery went 80 yards for a Northpoint touchdown and Kyle Brewer also scored from 46 yards out. The loss dropped the Trojans' TSSAA district record to 2-2 while USJ remains unbeaten in the district.
Magnolia Heights squelched a four-game losing streak with the Chiefs' 33-18 non-division win over North Delta. The 33 points matched the Chiefs' highest scoring output of the year and the 19 points scored by North Delta was the lowest total by an opponent since Magnolia Heights shut out Strayhorn 6-0 on Sept. 1.
Bob Bakken is Sports Editor and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.