Neshoba Eli Anderson file photo

Neshoba Central quarterback Eli Anderson tries to elude a Vicksburg defender during their game Oct. 22 in Philadelphia. Anderson and the Rockets travel to West Point Friday with a berth in the MHSAA Class 5A state title game on the line.

When Neshoba Central has needed him the most, senior placekicker Hunter Bavetta has delivered for the Rockets.

In the first round of the MHSAA Class 5A playoffs Nov. 12 against Lake Cormorant, Bavetta kicked a game-winning field goal to give the Rockets a 27-24 lead late in regulation. It was part of a 13-point fourth quarter that capped off a comeback win by Neshoba Central in that contest. Last week against Lafayette, Bavetta continued his clutch kicking by nailing a 37-yarder with 12 seconds remaining to give the Rockets a 23-20 win.

Now, Neshoba Central (12-0) faces a familiar foe in West Point (10-0) in Friday’s state semifinal round, the team eliminated the Rockets from the Class 5A postseason in 2019. Without Bavetta, Rockets head coach Patrick Schoolar said his team wouldn’t be in position to avenge its playoff loss from two years ago.

“The proof is in the last two ball games,” Schoolar said. “Without him, we don’t win. Obviously, there are more situations throughout the game and all that, but at the end of the games his right foot has put it through the uprights. He’s only missed two field goals all year, and one was just a foot short and one just a foot wide. He’s also missed just two PATs all year, so he’s been pretty clutch.”

Known primarily as a running team in past seasons, when the Rockets featured current Auburn running back Jarquez Hunter in their backfield, Neshoba Central has relied upon a more dynamic passing attack this fall. Senior quarterback Eli Anderson finished 27-for-43 for 345 yards and two touchdowns passing against Lafayette last week, and he spread the ball around to a wide receiving corps that features several playmakers. Dedrick McWilliams led the Rockets with seven catches for 100 yards and a touchdown against Lafayette, and Elijah Ruffin caught five passes for 77 yards and a score. Ja’Naylon Dupree tallied eight receptions for 95 yards, and Bryceton Spencer finished with six catches for 68 yards.

“It’s fun,” Schoolar said. “It’s a nightmare to defend because you can’t just watch one receiver. Friday night we had one of them catch six (passes), one catch five, one catch seven and one catch eight. On any given night those guys catch five to seven balls. They probably all have over 600 yards receiving and seven touchdowns each.”

Neshoba Central hasn’t abandoned the running game, though, and Ken Drummond has stepped up as one of the team’s feature backs. He had 13 carries for 72 yards last week against Lafayette, and Anderson has also shown playmaking ability with his legs, as he finished with nine rushes for 42 yards in that game.

“It’s a testament to having a well-balanced offense,” Schoolar said. “In years past we had really good running backs that other teams had to worry about, but I would say this year we’re harder to defend overall.”

Schoolar’s goal since arriving at Neshoba Central was to bring home a state championship to the school, and not much motivation is necessary when the next opponent is West Point.

“The kids are excited,” Schoolar said. “When my staff and I sat down four or five years ago, we discussed who we needed to beat in 5A in order to win state, and we all said West Point. Everything we’ve done was designed to compete with West Point, and I feel like we can. Will we beat them? Who knows, but I feel like we have a really good chance. We have to get breaks, and things will have to go our way. They’ve played in six (state title games) in a row now, and their staff does a really good job. If you want to play for the 5A championship, it runs through West Point.”

Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Friday at West Point.

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