Big changes ahead: Natchez High reveals 2023 football schedule

Published 3:51 pm Thursday, July 20, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Entering his second year as head coach of Natchez High School’s varsity football team, Steve Davis wanted to make sure his Bulldogs would be ready for the rigors of MHSAA Region 3-5A.

So how did Davis and his staff do that? He made several changes to the out-of-region, or pre-region, part of the 2023 season schedule. Out are Wilkinson County High School, which dropped down to Class 2A for at least the next two seasons, and Lawrence County High School. In are Hancock High School, McComb High School, Vicksburg High School, and Ocean Springs High School.

Talk about perhaps the toughest non-region schedule in the entire state, which now will consist of seven classifications. And two of those teams, Vicksburg and Ocean Springs, have moved up in classification — the Gators after the last 10 seasons in Class 5A to Class 6A and the Greyhounds after the last 14 seasons in Class 6A to the new Class 7A.

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“We needed to play tougher teams going into region play. We needed to be battle-tested. I feel like we have enough talent to take ton those teams,” Davis said. “When you play teams that you know that you can beat like 2A schools so you can get easy wins, that doesn’t benefit us going into the region schedule and into the playoffs.”

Natchez High welcomes Hancock Hawks to Tom F. Williams Memorial Stadium in the season-opener on Friday, Aug. 25 at 7 p.m. Hancock had the worst overall record of the Bulldogs’ six non-region opponents at 6-6. They lost to the Brandon High School Bulldogs 42-7 in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs last season.

Then the Bulldogs travel to McComb to take on the McComb Tigers on Friday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. This will the first time in quite some time that these two schools have played each other on the gridiron.

“The last time we played McComb may have been during the Lance Reed era. So, it’s been a while,” Davis said. The Tigers went 9-2 overall and 6-0 in Region 6-4A before after upset at home by Quitman 42-21 in the first round of the Class 4A Playoffs.

Natchez High plays host to Vicksburg on Friday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. Davis said these two teams played each other in the regular season back in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We played them in the fall jamboree last year,” Davis said. The Gators are no slouch either. In their final season in Class 5A last season, they went 10-3 overall and a surprising 8-0 in Region 5-5A. The Gators made it the third round of the Class 5A Playoffs before losing to West Point 14-0.

The Bulldogs will make the long trip to east side of the Mississippi Gulf Coast to take on Ocean Springs on Friday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. In their last season in Class 6A in 2022, the Greyhounds went 12-1 overall. They lost at home to Brandon 34-31 in the 6A semifinals. Now they make their maiden voyage to Class 7A.

The only two holdovers from last year’s non-region schedule are Jefferson County High School and Hazlehurst High School. Natchez High narrowly defeated the Tigers at home and were stunned by the Indians 24-6 in 2022.

Hazlehurst went 12-2 overall and 4-1 in Region 6-3A. After three impressive wins, the Indians lost to Region 6-3A and eventual state champion Raleigh High School 42-6 in the Class 3A semifinals.

“As for the Hazlehurst game, we feel like last year, we gave that game away. We had a lot of turnovers. We didn’t finish a lot of drives. We had two pick-sixes. Early in the year, we didn’t feel like we didn’t click,” Davis said. “When (head) coach (Damien) Gary called us last week, we had an open date and they had only eight games. It actually worked out for us. We didn’t like the way the game turned out last year. They were the better team that night. The opportunity came last week. We’re not turning down any challenges.”

Jefferson County had a good season of its own last year as the Tigers went 8-3 overall and 4-0 in Region 7-3A. They defeated Seminary 42-6 in the first round of the Class 3A Playoffs before losing at Magee 36-26 in the second round.

Region 3-5A itself will look a whole lot different than it has over the last several years. Out are Hattiesburg High School and West Jones High School, both of which are now in Class 6A, as well as Laurel High School and Wayne County High School, which are now in Region 4-5A.

In are Provine High School, which was in Region 2-5A and North Pike High School, which moved up Class 4A. The Jaguars did have a two-season stint in Region 3-5A back in 2017 and 2018, but for the most part have played in Class 4A going all the way back to 2009.

Whether having fewer opponents in Region 3-5A could help the Bulldogs make it back to the playoffs remains to be seen. They open region play by traveling to Summit to take on North Pike on Friday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.

“We really don’t think about that. Provine, I don’t know a lot about them. I think they’re going to be pretty good. They went either 6-5 or 5-6 last year. North Pike was good last year. We expect them to have formidable games this year,” Davis said. “We’re not going to take anyone lightly. We’re going to be prepared to win every game. Our focus is going to be taking care of business the Natchez Bulldog way.”

And while many people believe that Region 3-5A will be softer than has been in recent years, don’t tell that to Davis. With Brookhaven High School, Florence High School, and South Jones High School holdovers from the last several years, it could be just as tough as it has been.

“Our region, I don’t think you can take anyone lightly. A lot of people think we got weaker, but I think the region as a whole, we’re still going to be pretty good,” Davis said.

As for which team he believes will be the team to beat in Region 3-5A, Davis said it could be a two-team race for first place.

“Brookhaven as long as they have Xavier Gayten. But I’m not going to brag. I’m going to say this and I’ve been preaching this to my kids: we’re the team to beat,” Davis said. “I feel like we’re the team to beat. Others may see it differently. With the kids we’ve got and the staff, we’re the team to beat.”

The Panthers play host to the Bulldogs to wrap up their 2023 regular seasons on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. And by that time, the region title could very well be on the line.