For the past four years, Columbia has been one of the top football programs in the state, and now the Wildcats are finally heading to a state championship.
Columbia (13-1) outlasted a valiant effort from Poplarville Friday night to win the South State Championship 12-7 at Walter Payton Field and will be taking on Senatobia in the 4A state title Saturday at 11 a.m. at Southern Miss.
When Columbia was knocked out of last year’s postseason by Magee in the Class 3A South State Championship, head coach Chip Bilderback told the Wildcats “delayed does not mean denied.” That proved to be true Friday night, and it goes back to immediately following that loss.
“From the first day of our offseason program, this is what we (strived for), so we’re not surprised to be here. (It’s taken) so much hard work, sacrifice and commitment to get here, and I can’t say enough about our senior group,” he said immediately following the win over Poplarville. “Our other groups are great, but there’s something different about this group and the championship mentality they’ve had since day one.”
He added that the culmination of the whole season allowed the Wildcats to be able to weather the storm to pull away for the victory in the fourth quarter
“We’ve been waiting for this moment, and we wanted to win it,” he said.
Wildcats senior defensive end and receiver Peyton Anderson said the feeling of heading to state is everything he thought it would be, but the job isn’t done yet.
“This is what we’ve been working for for the past three, four years. We’ve been working for this, and now we’re getting a chance to go there. And now, we’ve got to win,” he said.
Columbia Superintendent Jason Harris said after the game that he had to pick his stomach up off the field when it was all said and done, but he’s just so excited for the players, coaches and fans.
“It’s really hard to come to a championship game three years in a row. We had so many adversities the past two, and we came into this one healthy,” he said. “I’m just so happy for the kids and the seniors. They’ve been a part of Chip’s team for the past four years and the progress they’ve made — I think this is their 50th-something game they’ve played — I’m just really excited for them. The big thing is we’re not done yet. We got one more to go.”
Columbia senior receiver, free safety and returner Kentrell Jackson said it feels great to be heading to state, especially because it didn’t come easy.
“We expected a hard fight, and we came out and played how we were supposed to play. We had a great week of practice. We didn’t doubt these (Poplarville) boys, but I expected us to win,” he said. “I love my team, my family and the fans that came out to support us — meet us at The Rock.”
Columbia’s season actually started at The Rock when it played Magee in its spring game. Anderson acknowledged there’s going to be a lot of nerves going back to the stadium, but he added once the pads start to popping, the Wildcats “will be right.”
“Everything is going to fall into place like it did tonight,” he said following Friday night’s win.
Harris said Friday night is exactly what they built the new Gardner Stadium for — a packed house on the big stage in a championship game.
“People don’t realize how hard it is just to get to this game, then to make it to that state championship,” he said. “There’s only six teams that go home happy every year, we’ve got a chance to be that team so we’re excited.”
With just one more win to go to seal Columbia’s first title since 1982, there’s only one more thing left to do.
“We’re going to take the city of Columbia about 25 miles down the road to The Rock, we’re going to pack that thing out and we’re going to try to bring it home,” Bilderback said.