Rico Harden

Rico Harden

For the first time since 2011, the Mary Persons Bulldogs will open the AAAA state playoffs on the road when they travel to Eastside (Covington) for a first round showdown at Homer Sharp Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

The Bulldogs, 5-5 overall (3-2 in Region 2-AAAA), qualified for the state playoffs as  Region 2-AAAA’s No. 3 seed thanks to a dramatic 45-38 road win over Howard on Thursday. Eastside, 7-3 overall (6-1 in Region 4-AAAA), clinched the No. 2 seed from Region 4-AAAA by pounding Hampton 37-7 at home on the same night. The Bulldogs and Eagles have never met on the gridiron.

Eastside has won three region titles in its program’s 24-year history, including the first perfect regular season in Newton County football history in 2018. The Eagles have advanced at least to the state quarterfinals on three occasions, including last year when Eastside was ousted 42-15 in the AAAA playoffs by eventual state champion Blessed Trinity. Eastside is led by head coach Troy Hoff, who has a 41-13-1 mark since 2015. Eastside’s lone NFL player and most famous football alum is New Orleans Saints’ defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.

The Eagles opened 2019 with back-to-back non-region losses, 58-21 at AAAAA Ola and 42-7 against AAAAAAA Newton. However, Eastside has bounced back with seven wins in its last eight games, starting with a 42-28 road win over AAAAAA Alcovy on Sept. 6. All six of Eastside’s region wins came by at least 21 points. The Eagles recorded wins over North Clayton (39-2), Luella (21-0), Salem (45-6), Druid Hills (42-0), McDonough (55-20) and Hampton (37-7). Eastside’s lone region defeat came on Oct. 11 when the Eagles were hammered 49-7 at home by undefeated Woodward Academy, the eventual Region 4-AAAA champion.

The 2019 Eagles’ offense is led by senior quarterback Noah Cook, who has passed for 1,648 yards on 60 percent completions for 15 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Cook was a second-team all-state performer in 2018 when he passed for 25 touchdowns. Cook has lots of options at receiver as six Eagles have caught at least 10 passes. Eastside’s leading receiver is senior Jeffery Haynes, who has caught a team-best 21 passes for 411 yards and five touchdowns. Haynes is also a big threat in the return game, averaging 33 yards per kick return.

Meanwhile, Eastside’s rushing attack is anchored by the duo of junior Sincere Johnson and sophomore Dallas Johnson, who have combined for 795 yards and 12 touchdowns on 128 carries.

Perhaps the Eagles’ top defender is junior linebacker Trace Nicholson, who leads the squad with 64 tackles and 10 tackles-for-a-loss and shares the team lead with two interceptions. Another key Eastside defender is junior linebacker Devin Brown, who has 35 tackles and two interceptions.

Arguably, Eastside’s biggest weapon could be on special teams where senior punter Ezra King, a first team all-state selection in 2018, averages 42 yards per punt. King has also taken over the placekicking duties in 2019, making 6 of 10 field goals with a long of 45 yards and 41 of 42 extra points.

As for MP, the Bulldogs’ defense has been porous at times in 2019, yielding a new single season school record 309 points. MP’s current points-per-game allowed average of 30.9 is the second-worst mark in program history, trailing only the 1944 squad’s average of 51 points-per-game allowed, which was achieved in a single 51-0 loss at R.E. Lee. In Thursday’s win over Howard, the Bulldogs gave up 355 rushing yards, which marked the third time this season that an opponent has rushed for more than 300 yards against the Bulldogs.

MP’s top all-around player is running back/cornerback Rico Harden, who is second on the team in rushing with 496 yards on 99 carries with a team-best nine touchdowns. Harden is also MP’s leading receiver with 350 yards on 16 receptions with five more scores. On defense, Harden has a team-best four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown and 14 pass break-ups while on special teams, he averages 29 yards per kickoff return, including one score.

If MP beats Eastside, the Bulldogs would face the winner of the first round matchup between Ridgeland, the No. 1 seed from Region 6-AAAA and Madison County, the No. 4 seed from Region 8-AAAA. If Ridgeland wins, the Bulldogs would travel to Rossville to play the Panthers on Friday, Nov. 22. If Madison County wins, then MP would host the Red Raiders on Friday, Nov. 22.

MP head coach Brian Nelson, who has won at least one playoff game in each of his seven previous seasons as Dogs’ head coach, said his team will have to show resiliency to extend MP’s playoff run past a single round.

“We’ve got to build off of this (Thursday’s comeback win over Howard) and play like we did tonight and not quit,” Nelson said. “Keep playing no matter what happens and at the end of the night just see where you’re at.”