The crown jewel of Columbia High School will be unveiled Friday night as the newly-renovated Walter Payton Field at Gardner Stadium will be the host to Class 6A powerhouse Petal taking on the Columbia Wildcats.
Wildcats head coach Chip Bilderback said the football program and the entire Wildcat family is excited to start this new journey with a state-of-the-art stadium. He said the stadium is a reflection of the legacy of former players and their hard work, and it will give future players the opportunity to carry on that legacy.
When they were making the schedule, the goal was to find an opponent that would draw a large crowd for the debut of Walter Payton Field, and Petal certainly checks that box.
“It’s going to be a tough matchup for us, but we want Friday night to be a night that everyone remembers with opening the stadium and playing a 6A we haven’t played in a long time,” Bilderback said. “It’s going to be a fun atmosphere. If you’re in Marion County, I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to be at this football field.”
Bilderback said any time you face a 6A opponent, the game changes a little bit because they have a lot of depth and typically have a strong kicking game, which is the case with the Panthers. He added Petal (1-1) is very strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball, have a dynamic dual-threat quarterback and runs a lot out of the spread.
“Receiver wise, they have two explosive guys, but what they want to be able to do is be physical up front and basically try to whip you at the point of attack, which plays into what we want to do,” he said.
The most important thing for the Wildcats will be not getting tired in the second half.
“It’s going to be a four-quarter game, and we’re going to need to have enough to win it in the fourth quarter,” Bilderback said.
Petal opened the season with a thrilling 16-10 overtime win over rival Hattiesburg, but the Panthers lost Friday night 48-26 to D’Iberville.
Columbia (1-0), after its opening week 34-12 win over Mendenhall, is coming off a bye week after East Marion had to forfeit because of quarantine. Bilderback said he’s not sure if having the week off will help or hinder the Wildcats because they had to get out of their normal game-week preparation and routine.
“It gave us a chance to get healthy, but I’m ready for our kids to play and us get in a week-to-week routine. It just helps our kids structurally on what to expect,” he explained.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m.