Coach Bo Barton reflects on Prairie View's unprecedented playoff run
Due to perilously low numbers last spring, rumors began to surface that Prairie View would drop down to eight-man football.
Though the rumors had no credibility — the board, administration and new coach Bo Barton were all adamantly opposed to the move — they made sense at the time.
Besides dealing with a shortage of players, the fact that Barton coached Tallulah Academy's eight-man state championship team in 2015 added wind to the rumor mill. Furthermore, Prairie View fielded an eight-man junior varsity (grades 7-9) team in 2014.
"In the spring, we had 12 kids out for football," Barton recalled. "We had four or five kids in school that decided to come out, and we had some new kids enroll. Going into the first week of practice, we had 23 football players."
Even though the roster had virtually doubled in size, nobody foresaw the Spartans' best season as a member of the MAIS coming. Prairie View (9-4) advanced to the MAIS semifinals before falling to Tri-County 36-26 Friday night in Flora, Mississippi.
"There were a lot of questions, a lot of doubt and a little bit of fear in a lot of folks eyes at the beginning," Barton said, "but this bunch of 23 football players banded together like a bunch of brothers and went to work."
A 4-0 start gave the squad a shot of confidence that it never lost. Though the Spartans closed out the regular season 7-3, they were in every game. Two of the losses were to 3A playoff qualifiers Riverfield and Central Private, with the third loss coming at the hands of River Oaks (28-18) in what proved to be the District 5-2A championship game.
Prairie View's biggest question mark during the preseason was its offensive line. After getting through the expected growing pains, the under-sized and inexperienced group eventually meshed into a cohesive unit. Eight-grade center Caleb Christmas was flanked by a combination of Austin Harper, Cole Kinnaird, Mason King, Gage Riles, Caleb Tanksley and tight end Jamarco Edmonds.
"The question I kept hearing was, 'What are you going to do with the offensive line?' If I heard it once, I heard it 20 times," Barton said.
At the time, the concerns were well-founded.
"We had kids playing offensive line that were playing defensive back and wide receiver last year," Barton said.
Life isn't always fair, but it is a fact of football life that offensive linemen toil in anonymity while others are showered with glory. While they didn't bask in the spotlight, the numbers bear out the fact that Prairie View's O-line performed its task admirably.
"Our offensive line produced a quarterback (Hayes Crockett) who threw for over 1,500 yards and probably rushed for close to 1,000, and a running back (Layton Rainbolt) who rushed for over 1,000 yards," Barton said. "As a team, we had close to 3,000 yards rushing and over 1,500 passing.
"Hats off to that bunch of offensive linemen who gave their heart and soul to Prairie View Academy with little or no recognition at all. That's a very unselfish bunch of team players, right there."
There were also concerns on the defensive front where Jacob Walker, Tyler Peters, Kolton Farrar, Logan Wilkerson, Kinnaird and Riles exceeded expectations collectively.
"Flip it over, and the biggest question was. 'What were we going to do with the defensive line?'" Barton said. "We had a bunch of guys step up on that side, as well."
Bouncing back from the River Oaks loss, the Spartans cemented a playoff spot with a win over Class 1A Claiborne Academy in the regular season finale. On to the playoffs, the Spartans won a 28-20 decision over River Oaks in a first-round rematch before taking care of Amite School Center (Miss.) 44-30 in the quarterfinals.
Prairie View led Tri-County 20-15 at halftime before conceding 21 unanswered points to start the second half. Tri-County, the 2015 and 2016 state runner-up, advanced to the finals for the third consecutive year.
"To watch these boys grow mentally and physically as young men and football players was quite a good feeling for me," Barton said. "To be right there in the semifinals against a team like Tri-County says a lot about the type of young men we have on this football team. You look at their fieldhouse and see all the state championship banners and tradition they have, yet we were one play away from probably winning the football game. They are almost a 3A school and we are almost a 1A school."
As he began the process of packing the gear away for next year, there was a degree of sadness in Barton's voice Monday morning as it began to sink in that there would be no practice that afternoon. Still, the Spartans' accomplishments overshadowed any disappointment.
"This was probably one of the most enjoyable years I have ever had as a coach," Barton said. "I feel like we as a staff — coach (Paul) Shaw, coach (Mason Caldwell), coach (Nick) Jenkins and coach (Kyron) Edmonds — got just about every ounce of energy and effort out of these guys. We walked off the field Friday night with our heads held high.
"These kids never quit and they always believed they were going to beat whoever they were playing. It was an honor and a privilege to coach this group of kids."