• John Macon Gillespie

The Return of Cinderella: Water Valley's Ride to the State Championship

Water Valley’s Kenterrious Rucker (17) celebrates a touchdown in the North Half Finals game vs. North Panola.

(Photo courtesy of Keli Lindsey; Nov. 23, 2018)

In 1990, the town of Water Valley, Mississippi, was living in pandemonium.

The gridiron Blue Devils had pulled off the seemingly-impossible as they reached their first playoff appearance, won their first division title and won their first state championship in school history, all with the perfect record of 15–0 to kickoff the new decade.

After that magical season, however, Water Valley High School wondered if it would ever experience that feeling of ecstasy again. Since 1990, the Blue Devils had never made it back to the promised land of the state championship game and seemed to fall short at every turn, some seasons worse than others.

Still, the memory of 1990 lived on, especially in the hearts of those who claimed a championship ring from that campaign.

“The best way to describe it was ‘mania,’” 1990 Blue Devil Trea Higdon said. “Every business was decorated in blue and white. There were declarations made by the board of alderman declaring ‘Blue Devil Day.’ Teachers would stop in the hallways of school and start a cheer, and the entire student body would participate.”

Higdon, now the athletic director at South Panola High School (which is famous for winning 89-straight games from 2003–2008), still reminisces about that Blue Devil season when he gets a chance.

“We were treated as local heroes and actually still are,” Higdon said. “Water Valley had never made the playoffs before that season, so the community was abuzz once we made it to the championship game.”

According to Higdon, this community support was one of the brightest points of the 1990 season.

“The fans would meet us at the county line and/or Main Street to cheer us either on our way to the game or once we returned from a game,” Higdon said. “It was like living in a dream. True movie moments.”

Since 1990, Water Valley football has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride as the Blue Devils have laid claim to five more division titles but also multiple losing seasons in that 28-year span. Water Valley took the 2018 season by storm, however, and started the year 9–1 before falling to North Panola in a de facto division title game.

Although the Blue Devils led North Panola at halftime, the Cougars stormed back to win 52–19 and seemingly crush the spirits of the Water Valley faithful. After that dominating performance, many people in the state decided that a North Panola state championship was inevitable and thus redirected their eyes away from the 3A classification.

Water Valley wasn’t finished, however.

The Blue Devils entered the postseason as the No. 2 seed in Region 2–3A behind the aforementioned North Panola. The Blue Devils rattled off three-straight wins to start the playoffs, outscoring their opponents 95–28 in the process. Water Valley was then set up for a North Half Finals rematch with their rival North Panola to decide who would represent 3A North in the state championship game.

Team photographer Keli Lindsey was a junior during the Blue Devils’ state title run in 1990 and has drawn comparisons between that team and this year’s Blue Devils.

“One of the things that stands out is the closeness of this team,” Lindsey said. “This is a great group of guys with super attitudes, and that is one of the keys to a championship-level team, in my opinion.”

Lindsey sees not only the camaraderie of the team as a similarity to the 1990 unit, but the squad’s determination and work-ethic, as well.

“Another similarity is the will to win — that absolute drive to get there,” Lindsey said. “Sure, every team wants to make it to the championship, but not every team wants to put in the work required to make it there. This team and coaching staff have been willing to put in the work just like Coach [Terry] Allen and our guys were.”

The work paid off.

Water Valley traveled to Sardis, Miss., on Nov. 23, 2018, and got the revenge they wanted so badly. The team that annihilated the Blue Devils in the second half of their regular season bout fell in the rematch 42–28.

Water Valley quarterback Jacon Truss (16) fights for yardage in the North Half Finals game vs. North Panola.

(Photo courtesy of Keli Lindsey; Nov. 23, 2018)

For the first time in 28 years, Water Valley was bound for the state championship, but the Blue Devils’ win over North Panola didn’t come easily, however.

After dropping the regular season matchup by 33 points, Water Valley scored that exact same number after halftime in the North Half Finals to secure the win. According to senior Nathaniel Murphy, that strong second half performance made all the difference.

“We came out and played in the second half,” Murphy said. “Last time we played them, we didn’t finish how we wanted to and fell short to a really good football team.”

According to Murphy, the team’s preparation in the week leading up to the North Half Finals proved to be the difference.

“We knew how much this one meant to us and everyone else that was with us,” Murphy said. “So with that thought, we prepared like champions and played [the] best game we’ve ever played.”

Although Trea Higdon is now employed at South Panola, just a mere nine miles from Water Valley’s rival North Panola, this season might be a greater rooting interest to him than his own title run in 1990. Higdon’s son, Dalton Higdon, is a junior on this Blue Devils squad and, like his father before him, gained a chance to compete for a state championship in his hometown.

“It feels very surreal,” Higdon said. “For my son to be able to experience what I have experienced is a father’s dream. These memories will last forever. I know because I think about the magical 1990 season every day.”

Although Higdon has had a successful career in athletics, both as an athlete and a coach, he says that if his son could bring home a championship ring, it would immediately become his most treasured possession.

“I have seven championship rings: one in high school, two from college and four as a coach,” Higdon said. “Two of the rings are national championship rings, but the one I won as a player at Water Valley is my most cherished. If the Blue Devils can win Friday, his will become my most cherished.”

State Championship Friday came quickly for the Blue Devils as they prepared for their matchup with the Seminary Bulldogs who represented 3A South.

Water Valley came out of the gate quickly and never trailed in the game as they secured a 34–28 win and their second-ever state championship. Blue Devil quarterback Jacob Truss threw for 140 yards and four touchdowns, and 100 of those yards and all of those scores came on passes to Bud Tolbert.

For Truss, who transferred to Water Valley from Hickory Flat High School last year, leading a team to a state title was a dream come true. Leaving a school with little experience on the football roster to a squad as experienced as Water Valley helped make Truss’ team a reality.

“I’ve always dreamed of playing for the state title and felt that moving to Water Valley was my only hope,” Truss said.

Although winning state was always his dream, Truss still is having trouble processing the win a week later.

The Water Valley Blue Devils hoist the state championship trophy after their 34–28 win over

Seminary High School to secure the title. (Photo by John Macon Gillespie; Nov. 30, 2018)

“I don’t know the words,” Truss said. “It’s been almost a week, and I’m still speechless. It’s a dream come true, and it’s crazy that I’ve been a part of something that not many people get to experience.”

Water Valley head coach Brad Embry, who is in his 11th season at the helm of the Blue Devils’ program, voiced his approval with the community support behind his team’s win on Friday.

“Look,” Embry said as he gestured to the crowd, “there’s no one in Water Valley. I mean, 11 o’clock on a Friday morning, that tells you all you need to know.”

Along with Embry, Trea Higdon has the satisfaction of knowing that he and his son Dalton are a part of the only two state championship teams in Water Valley history.

“For him to be a member of that great team of players and coaches was something that he will cherish forever,” Higdon said. “He will be able to tell his own stories of this magical season to his own children one day instead of telling the stories he has heard his father tell many times.”

For the Higdon family, as well as the entire town of Water Valley, their team’s championships will always be remembered side-by-side as the best years in program history.

“Dalton told me two things when he got home after winning the championship,” Higdon said. “One, his ring will be bigger than mine. Two, that their team picture will now be hung next to the 1990 team pic. As a father, that made me very proud. Our team’s accomplishments will always be side-by-side as father and son.”

#WaterValley #JohnMaconGillespie

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