By Brandon Walker
assistant sports editor
Rivalries can be tricky sometimes.
Sure, all high school rivalries are unique, but the budding one between Meridian and Oak Grove is quickly becoming one of the most competitive in the state.
While some rivalries are formed due to location, animosity, or any other form of competitive banter, the one shared by the Meridian Wildcats and Oak Grove Warriors is fast becoming known for its fierce meetings on the gridiron.
In each of the last three seasons, the winner of the Region 3-5A showdown between the two teams has gone on to win the region championship.
And for three years running, the loser of the regular season matchup has bounced back to eliminate the other from the postseason.
For the past two years, that playoff winner has turned out to be Meridian, which bounced Oak Grove from the postseason last year en route to a second straight appearance in the 5A State Championship game.
These days, it seems like every time the two Region 3 opponents meet on the gridiron, the stakes are high. Tonight's 7 p.m. matchup is no different.
After starting region play with back-to-back wins over Natchez and Hattiesburg, Meridian will travel to Oak Grove tonight. The winner, as usual, will own sole possession of first place in the region standings.
The game creating its usual buzz statewide, but MHS second-year head coach Larry Weems isn't looking at it that way.
"The most important game on the schedule is always the next one," Weems remarked. "This is just the next game we need to win. Looking at it, the winner of this game will be 3-0 which gives you a real solid chance going down the stretch, but we just have to keep getting better as a football team."
Oak Grove enters tonight's matchup with a 4-1 overall mark and 2-0 record in district play, owning a 41-12 win over Wingfield and a 34-21 victory at Natchez.
The Warriors' lone setback of the year came in a 29-21 loss to George County.
Meridian heads into tonight's clash coming off perhaps its most complete performance of the season in a 30-20 victory over Hattiesburg. Junior quarterback Tyler Russell threw for a pair of scores and ran for another while the Meridian defense stifled a high-powered Hattiesburg offense that had averaged 46 points per game in its three previous outings.
Weems knows that kind of defensive effort will be needed this week against a well-coached Oak Grove offense.
"They are a very well-coached team with a lot of athletes every year," Weems added.
While injuries have added to speculation about which of Oak Grove's three quarterbacks — Josh Larson, Drew Norwood or James McMahon — will start, Weems knows the Wildcats have to be prepared for anything.
"We've seen all three guys on film and they can all three play, so we're not worried about that. It will be a good player, we know that much," Weems said.
Injuries and inexperience has also been an obstacle for Meridian, which had to replace nine defensive starters coming into the year. With injuries mounting, Weems and his staff have fielded one of the youngest MHS teams in recent memory.
"Because of some injuries, we've been forced to play some young players all over the field," Weems said. "It's hard to make a lot of progress when you're constantly changing your lineup, but the kids are working hard and we are getting better. We still have a long way to go to get to where I know this team can be, but we are getting better."
Cornerback Khairi Usher leads Meridian's defense with 44 total tackles and a pair of interceptions.
Offensively, Meridian's balanced attack leans heavily on Russell and senior running back Cedrick Blanks, who rushed for 162 yards against Hattiesburg.
On the season, Russell has thrown for 1,301 yards and 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions while Blanks has rushed for 547 yards through six games.
Running back Mike Hawthorne leads Oak Grove with 272 yards on the ground.
By Brandon Walker
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