Senior linebacker Blake Ray has helped Prairie View advance to the semifinals for the first time as an MAIS school.

Prairie View senior linebacker Blake Ray has already signed his "letter-of-intent," but it has nothing to do with sports. Less than a month after graduating from high school, Ray will report for basic training with the United States Marines.

"I'll be shipping out June 11 for boot camp in Paris Island, South Carolina," Ray said.

Though he officially enlisted only recently, Ray made up his mind to join the Marines several years back.

"I have always wanted to go into the military," Ray said. "Since the seventh or eighth grade, I have always wanted to join the Marines, in particular. I want to be a part of the few, the proud, the best. It was not a last-minute decision."

Ray plans to study engineering in the Marines.

"I am going to military college in engineering to be an airplane mechanic," Ray said.

As for the present, Ray is having the time of his life playing football as the Spartans have advanced to the MAIS Class 2A semifinals.

"I have never been to the semifinals before in any sport," Ray said. "I went to a travel ball World Series in baseball, but this is my first time to go this far with a school team."

Ray has been a big part of the Spartans' playoff run, recording a season-high 12 tackles in a 28-20 first-round victory over River Oaks, followed by an 11-tackle effort in last week's 44-30 quarterfinal win over Amite (Miss.).

"First of all, I am proud of the direction Blake has taken in his life by joining the Marines. It says a lot about the type of person he is," Barton said. "As a football player, he plays hard on every play. He's very coachable and makes a lot of plays. He's not very vocal, but he does what he's supposed to do. He leads by example.

"I am glad I have had the opportunity to coach him. He's a great kid."

Barton has had the opportunity to coach Ray in both baseball and football. A pitcher/first baseman with middle of the order power, Ray earned first-team All-District honors last season after helping the Spartans win the conference championship.

"Blake told me he hadn't pitched in a while," Barton said. "He's a side armer, and we started working him on the mound in practice. He ended up having a great year for us pitching, and he hit with some power. He hit a big home run for us against Newton in the playoffs. We're counting on an even bigger year from him this year."

On the gridiron, Ray has amassed 83 tackles, six tackles in the backfield and two sacks, while forcing three fumbles and recovering four.

Against Amite last week, the Spartans scored on two of their first three possessions en route to building a 16-0 lead and never looked back. Although the Rebels were able to stay reasonably close most of the way, the outcome was never in serious doubt.

"We weren't planning on getting the ball first, but our offense took advantage of it," Ray said. "Their backs ran hard, but we were able to stay away from the big play."

Ray says playing a first-time opponent like Amite was a challenge as opposed to playing River Oaks, a team the Spartans had played just two weeks prior.

"The Amite game was nerve-racking because we had never played them before," Ray said. "We had watched Amite on film, but you never really know what a team is like until you get on the field with them. It was different with River Oaks because we knew how they were going to try to attack us."

After losing to River Oaks 28-18 on Senior Night, the Amite game provided a second chance for the Spartans' seniors.

"When we lost to River Oaks, we thought it was our last home game, and it was heartbreaking to lose it," Ray said. "Beating River Oaks (in Monroe) gave us another chance to play on our home field again, and we weren't going to accept another loss."

While Prairie View's potent offense grabs most of the attention, the Spartans' defense has been solid week in and week out. Ray says Barton, who is highly-respected throughout the area for his work on the offensive side of the ball, can coach defense, as well.

"We just take it one game at a time," Ray said. "A lot of our success has been because of the way coach Barton runs our defense. He knows when to call the blitz and when to have us hit the offense in the mouth until they give up."

Next up for the Spartans (9-3) is a semifinal matchup against Tri-County (8-4) on Friday at 7 p.m. in Flora, Mississippi. This marks Prairie View's first semifinal appearance as an MAIS school.

"It's exciting to be in the semifinals," Ray said.