Rams edge Benton Academy, advance to state title game

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 14, 2015

WOODVILLE — Sam Nicholas is no stranger to the big stage.

The senior was a member of Wilkinson County Christian Academy’s 2012-13 team that went to the state championship game.

So, when his number was called Friday night to make a play to send WCCA back to the championship once again, he answered.

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Nicholas stuffed Benton Academy running back Barrett Whitworth on a two point conversion attempt with just over three minutes left to play, helping seal WCCA’s 21-20 win and berth in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools AA state championship game.

“That was huge,” WCCA head coach Chris McGraw said. “We made a play. Sam battled all night, and it comes down to one of our seniors that played in the state championship, so that is awesome for him.”

Nicholas made five tackles in the game and said he was playing for everyone else.

“I do this for my team,” Nicholas said. “I was just trying to keep outside contain and hold them from scoring.”

McGraw, who is in his first season as head coach at WCCA, was active all night, but once the game ended, he let out a huge sigh of relief.

“I love it for the boys,” he said. “It is great coming home and doing this, but it is all about them. I care more about them than anything in this world, next to my family, and that is where I want to be, is there with them. We showed a lot of guts tonight.”

The Rams fell behind midway through the first quarter, after Benton Academy drove 77 yards down the field, capped by a three-yard touchdown run from Whitworth. A failed two point conversion made the score 6-0.

WCCA answered quickly, though, with quarterback Caleb Poole scoring his first of two rushing touchdowns on the ensuing drive from 38 yards out.

WCCA converted the two point conversion to go up 8-6.

The Raiders battled back and found the end zone early in the second quarter on a 1-yard run from Kendall Prescott, pushing their lead to 14-8.

But the rest of the quarter belonged to the Rams.

Poole found the end zone again, this time on a 9-yard run to tie the game at 14.

WCCA then recovered an onside kick, and four plays later, Poole connected with Phillip Cutrer on a 31-yard touchdown pass, giving the Rams a 21-14 lead heading into halftime.

“We don’t kick it deep,” McGraw said of the decision to go with an onside kick. “Not that I don’t trust my boys, I just don’t like kicking it deep. We have a chance of getting it if we onside it, and if we kick it deep, we don’t.”

A scoreless third quarter set up for a dramatic finish in the fourth.

Benton Academy stuffed WCCA on a fourth and inches attempt, giving the Raiders the ball at their own 48-yard line late in the game.

Running back Wyatt Street, who led Benton Academy with 190 yards rushing in the game, then busted a 48-yard run down to the WCCA 14-yard line.

The Raiders scored two plays later on a 14-yard pass from Prescott to John Michael Graham, cutting the lead to 21-20.

However, Nicholas would make the stop on the two point attempt, giving the Rams the ball back.

But the game wouldn’t be complete without some late heroics from Poole, who accounted for 300 yards of total offense for WCCA.

Facing a third down, Poole was able to seal the win on a 28-yard scamper into Raider territory, setting up the Rams to take a victory formation kneel down.

“The kid is special,” McGraw said of Poole. “A lot of people doubted him, but I had no doubt in my mind what kind of player he was.”

Poole was quick to give credit to the men leading the way for him — his offensive line.

“They are the reason I do everything I do,” he said. “They did it when they had to and it feels great.”

Now, the Rams will take on Tri-County Academy in the state title game, the same team that took the championship in 2012-13 with a 13-10 win in overtime.

“It is going to be hard,” Poole said. “But we are going to work hard Sunday through Wednesday and get it going.”

The MAIS AA championship game is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 19 at 2 p.m. at Millsaps College in Jackson.