Picayune’s David Baker scores a touchdown against Wayne County in the Maroon Tide’s 40-38 win over the War Eagles on Nov. 18, 2016 at Lee-Triplett Stadium in Picayune. (Photo, sunherald.com)

COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF 2017

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Game No. 4: Wayne County at Picayune

(Editor’s note: This is the seventh of a 10-part series featuring the Top 10 area high school football games from the 2016 season. The countdown will continue in each edition of the Leader-Call up to the No. 1 game, which will be revealed on Aug. 17, the start of the 2017 season.)

In a game that featured nine lead changes, six in the final 12:30 of the game, it was a 30-yard field goal off the foot of Picayune senior kicker Isidro Loya with eight seconds left that lifted the Maroon Tide to an exhilarating 40-38 win over Wayne County in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.

“This team has done a lot for me, and I wanted to return the favor,” Loya told the Picayune-Item after his game-winning kick. “We fought so hard all year and to go out against Wayne County in the playoffs was just not an option for me. We’re just loving the moment right now.”

Picayune scored first to lead 6-0 before the War Eagles answered to take a 7-6 lead. A safety by the Tide regained the lead at 8-7 before a 3-yard run by David Baker and a 62-yard jaunt by Josh Littles pushed the Picayune advantage to 22-7 at intermission.

In the third quarter, the War Eagles mounted a quick comeback.

Wayne County scored twice in less than two minutes — a 19-yard shovel pass to Garius Meyers and a 5-yard option run by quarterback Zabryan Jackson — after a Picayune fumble at its own 15-yard line to close the gap to one point, 22-21 midway through the third quarter.

The War Eagles regained the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter when Jackson tossed a 23-yard scoring strike to Will Magnum with 24 seconds left before the final quarter.

As the game reached the the final 12 minutes, and with the War Eagles maintaining a 28-22 lead, the fireworks were just getting ignited.

Picayune’s Blake Merrifield bulldozed over three War Eagle defenders during his 41-yard scamper into the end zone to tie the game at 28 before Loya booted the PAT to give the Tide a one-point advantage with 11:03 to go.

But, Wayne County answered.

After a fourth-and-goal on the 1-yard line for Wayne County turned into a penalty that pushed it back 5 yards, the War Eagles elected to kick a 23-yard field goal and Heath Mosley’s kick gave Wayne County a 31-29 lead with 7:10 left in the contest.

The Maroon Tide took the lead back when V.J. Holt caught a wide open pass for a 36-yard touchdown, giving the Tide a 37-31 lead with a successful two-point conversion by Baker with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game.

On the ensuing kickoff, Schdarius Chambers returned the ball into Picayune territory. Wayne County inched its way to the 1-yard line before running back Chris Cooley forced his way into the end zone, giving the War Eagles a 38-37 advantage with 1:34 left.

However, Picayune was not going to bow out of the playoffs for the third season in a row to the War Eagles.

After taking over at their own 20-yard line, Shaun Anderson ripped off a few key runs to set up Loya for his first game-winning field goal of his career as Lee-Triplett Stadium erupted with a trip to the Class 5A South State championship game sewed up.

“Going into the second half, we knew they were fighting for every inch, so I made sure we did the same,” Picayune head coach Dodd Lee told the Picayune-Item.

Wayne County opened the season with four straight losses before starting Region 3-5A play. Once in region play, the War Eagles found their footing and ripped off a 6-1 mark with the lone loss coming to Laurel. After beating Pascagoula in the opening round, the War Eagles’ season ended at Picayune as they exited the playoffs without advancing to the South State title game for the first time since 2013.

Picayune opened the season with seven straight wins before falling to Stone. The Tide rebounded and won their last three regular-season games to garner the No. 1 seed out of Region 4-5A. The Tide trounced Wingfield in the opening round 63-30 before nipping Wayne County. The win over the War Eagles set up Picayune (12-1) with a South State showdown with Laurel (12-1) with the winner advancing to Starkville for the Class 5A state championship game.

The tilt between the Naders and Tide wound up being the No. 2 game of 2016 and will appear in Tuesday’s edition of the Leader-Call.