Hawks’ 2017 season is one for the history books
By Dwayne Bremer
Nov 25, 2017, 09:47
The Hancock High School Hawks' magical 2017 season ended last Friday when the Pearl Pirates defeated the Hawks 41-3 in the quarter finals of the MHSAA playoffs.
Despite the loss, the 2017 season will be looked upon as one of the most successful in school history.
In 2017, the Hancock Hawks not only won on the football field, but united a community and set a high standard for future teams.
The long road:
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Hancock had a solid football program. From 1976 to 2004, Hancock had winning records most years and made several playoff and bowl game appearances along the way.
The 2004 Hawks had a down year, going 1-10. Things got a whole lot worse on August 29, 2005.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of Hancock County's infrastructure and displaced thousands of families. The Hawks football team also took a big hit. Many of the players and coaches were displaced, some never returned.
Hancock did not win a game in 2005, 2006, or 2007.
The downturn in the program also had ripple effects. Each year, several Hancock families chose to send their children to other local schools with better football programs. Other potential players simply did not play because losing football was neither fun nor cool.
Things began to improve in 2009, when the Hawks went 5-6.
A few years later, Coach Rocky Gaudin returned, and in 2014, led Hancock to its first playoff game in 23 years.
The past two seasons, however, have been plagued with injuries, heartbreaking losses, and some bad luck, leading some to dismiss the program once again.
Hancock Hawks Head Coach Neil Lollar's Twitter handle is very appropriate.
Lollar came to Hancock in 2013 as an assistant coach and was named head coach last spring.
As the team's former strength coach, Lollar instituted an aggressive, conditioning program. As the team began to buy into the program, the players began to get stronger, faster, and mentally tougher.
This year, Hancock has dominated in the second half of just about every game, and on occasion, winning several of them in the final seconds.
Lollar still enjoys the strength sessions and even participates.
"Let's face it, working out is not the most fun thing to do," Lollar said. "But the kids don't mind it and they know it's important."
"If you build it they will come"
Hancock County's recovery from Katrina had a huge impact on the 2017 team.
The county has experienced strong growth in recent years, and new job opportunities have brought many families to the area. As a result, the Hawks' talent pool increased.
Everett Ganier, whose son E.J. is a standout corner back for this year's team, said he has fallen in love with Hancock County.
"When we moved here, I was not sure," Ganier said. "Now, this is home. This is where I want to raise my family and this is where they want to be."
Ganier has three more boys, all of whom plan to follow in their brother's footsteps.
This summer also saw the arrival of several impact players. Getting new players is one way to improve a program, but getting current students with talent to join the team is just as vital.
Rondell Womack did not play football the past two seasons, but after working out with the football team this spring and summer, he decided to give it a shot for his senior season.
As the season progressed, so did Womack's play. In his first season playing varsity football, the speedy Womack has rushed for more than 1,000 yards, caught passes for more than 300 yards.
"The love of the game"
There was not much for children in Hancock County to do in the years following Katrina, and for youths playing Pee Wee football, the lack of other activities allowed them to spend more time playing and falling in love with football.
Many of the Pee Wee coaches are former Hawks who teach players the lessons they learned during the "Glory Days" of the program.
"We just tried to teach them the game the right way," Wade Ladner said. "This group loved it. You could tell they were going to be good."
Ladner's son Trenton has been dominant for the Hawks this year. Many more of the players got their starts at Hancock County's many of youth football leagues.
The 2016 Hancock Hawks were 4-7, but they were only a few plays away from having a winning record. The 2016 team was competitive in all but two games, but they lost several close ones in heartbreaking fashion.
With many starters returning and other new players on board, Lollar knew his team had a chance to be good.
"I really don't know how good we will be," Lollar said in a pre-season interview. "If we continue to work and get better like we have been, we can be very good."
Hancock opened the season with an impressive 35-0 shutout of Pearl River Central. The following week, the Hawks traveled to South Jones and overcame a 14-0 deficit to take a convincing 27-14 win. A big interception by Brodie Fitts sparked the comeback. It was the first time a Hancock team had overcome that large of a deficit to win since Katrina.
"A good measuring stick"
After shutting out Gautier 24-0, the Hawks (3-0) traveled to Mandeville in week four to take on the Lakeshore Titans, who are currently 13-0 and a top 5 team in Louisiana's second highest classification.
Two defensive backs were out that night, and the Hawks had a first quarter to forget, giving up 37 unanswered points.
The Hawks, however, continued to fight and outscored Lakeshore 23-14 in the final three quarters with the Titans playing their starters the whole time.
"This was a great team we played tonight," Lollar said. "Once we settled down, we showed that we can compete with a team like this. It was a good measuring stick. They will now realize what it takes to beat a great team."
"It's our time"
The Hawks seniors had only known heartbreak to the Ocean Springs Greyhounds over the past three years. In 2014, Hancock could not convert on a two-point conversion in the final minute and lost 21-20.
The following year, the Hawks were trailing 17-13, but had a first-and-goal at the three with 30 seconds to play. The Greyhounds stopped the Hawks on four consecutive plays to win.
Last year, Hancock was in control of the game the entire way, until Ocean Springs drove the length of the field for a touchdown with only seconds left. The Greyhounds converted a two-point play and won.
This year, the Hawks trailed 20-7 at halftime, but the 2017 Hawks had a different ending in mind.
The Hawks dominated the second half, and a last-second pass to the end-zone was knocked down by Ganier as the Hawks won 28-20.
In the post-game huddle, senior Drake Necaise addressed his teammates. With his voice cracking and fighting back tears, Necaise gave what would become the team's rallying cry.
"Don't ever let anyone tell us we can't do it," Necaise said. "This is what we worked so hard for. This is who we are. It's our time!"
The phrase caught on. Parents and fans began using it as a hashtag and shirts were printed with the slogan.
"Friday night in Kiln Mississippi"
Excited by the team's 4-1 start, a packed house of family, friends, and alumni filled Brett Favre Field for the Hawks Homecoming game against St. Martin.
Hawks alumni were treated to a show unlike any seen in Kiln in recent memory. Hancock jumped out to a 21-0 lead and cruised to a 49-23 victory.
"That was an amazing game and atmosphere," said Harry Frierson, a member of the 1977 undefeated Hancock team said. "It reminded me of when we played."
Part of the atmosphere is a unique and exciting pre-game tradition as the Hawks take the field.
When the team captains head back to a large inflatable Hawk tunnel, fans are encouraged to help "call out the Hawks." A classical choral song complete with a screeching Hawk is played until smoke starts to fill the Hawk tunnel. At that point, the public address announcer informs the crowd that "It's Friday Night in Kiln, Mississippi."
As the band plays the school's fight song, the team then runs through another tunnel filled with students, cheerleaders and band members.
"It gives me chills," former Hancock County Supervisor Steve Seymour said. "There is nothing like it."
Hancock was riding high and a showdown for the district lead with Gulfport was looming.
Mother nature, however, was looming, as well.
The threat of Hurricane Nate caused the Gulfport game to be moved up and hour, and the Hawks came out flat.
Trailing 19-0 late in the third quarter, the Hawks scored when Austin Briley recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown. Hancock was driving early in the fourth and looking to cut the lead to 19-14 on their next drive, but a costly penalty squashed any hope of a comeback. The loss cost the Hawks the district title as Gulfport would win out the rest of the way.
"Catch us if you can"
Hancock still had a great shot at the number two seed and a home playoff game, but sloppy play, saw the Hawks tied with D'Ibervile 28-28 at halftime.
As Rondell Womack streaked down the right sideline to start the second half, however, the Warriors could only give a meager chase as Womack pulled away for an 80-yard touchdown.
Hancock would win 56-28.
They followed it up with a 35-0 shutout of Harrison Central and a dramatic win against Biloxi to clinch the two seed.
"We got your back"
On several occasions this year, the Hawks faced adversity both on and off the field.
As the season continued, so did the adversity, but every time, the Hawks overcame.
Junior Blake Comeaux was injured in practice prior to the Harrison Central game and was out for the year. Comeaux had been the Hawks leading rusher.
Stepping into his place was Marquis Cherry, who had spent the majority of the season at split end.
Cherry, the Hawks leading rusher in 2016, made a seamless adjustment, racking up more than 600 yards in the four games since.
Michael Durr, who was beat out by Caleb Garcia for the starting quarterback spot in preseason, has been a solid defensive starter all year. In last week's playoff win, he collected two interceptions and batted down Brandon's final "Hail Mary" pass.
Chase McDonald played offense his sophomore and junior years. This year, he has become one of the Hawks' best defensive players.
"Every week its been a new guy stepping up," Lollar said. "Everyone accepts their role and excels in it. Every single player has had an impact this year. It's been a total team effort."
"The final chapter"
Hancock upset the Brandon Bulldogs 30-27 in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks racked up more than 400 yards of offense and dominated the game physically.
The reward for this historic victory was a trip to Pearl to play the undefeated Pirates who will likely contend for a state title.
Lollar said his team continued to battle to the end and the final score should take nothing away from this year's accomplishments.
"This team should be commended on all of the hard work they put in this year," he said. "I am proud of each and every one of them. It was a special year and hopefully, the beginning of another long winning tradition here."