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Rice's status uncertain as Columbus completes winless season

 

Columbus High School’s Matthew Leach finds room to run against Hernando on Friday night in Columbus.

Columbus High School’s Matthew Leach finds room to run against Hernando on Friday night in Columbus. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch

 

Scott Walters

 

The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.

 

Speculation intensified about the future of Columbus High School football coach Eric Rice after his team completed a winless regular season Friday night at Falcon Field. 

 

Hernando used three lengthy interception returns to break open a tight game en route to a 33-0 victory against Columbus on Senior Night in a Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 1 game. 

 

Columbus honored a 21-member senior class prior to the game festivities. Unfortunately, the Falcons (0-11, 0-7 region) couldn't avert their first winless season since 1996. 

 

The storyline, though, was on the sidelines. Assistant coach Kevin Jones coached the team in place of Rice. When asked why he was leading the team, Jones said Rice was out sick. 

 

"The team competed hard. They have done that all season," Jones said. "When we have adversity, it is difficult to overcome. The turning point was the sequence there to end the first half. We were deflated at halftime because we didn't score there at the end." 

 

Rice replaced Randal Montgomery as head coach in March. The Falcons played three perennial state championship contenders to start the season and never regained their footing. 

 

"Things just never went our way," Columbus senior linebacker Titus Kirk said. "I am proud of this team even though we didn't win any games. We competed hard the entire season. In football, you learn a lot about life. I have always loved playing the game, and I think we learned a lot this year." 

 

Columbus will carry a 17-game losing streak into the 2019 season. Whether that future involves Rice remains in doubt. 

 

Two Columbus High seniors said after the game Rice wasn't with the team during any practices leading up to the game against Hernando. 

 

But Rice conducted his weekly pre-game radio interview Thursday morning. The segment aired Friday night prior to the broadcast of the game on WMSV-FM 91.1. 

 

Columbus Municipal School District Board President Jason Spears and CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat didn't return voicemails Saturday morning. 

 

In a text message exchange with The Dispatch on Saturday morning, Rice thanked the players and assistants for their hard work and the newspaper for its coverage of the team. 

 

On the field, Hernando (4-7, 2-5) used a four-touchdown night from senior running back Ladarrion Darden and four turnovers created by the defense to cruise to the victory. 

 

On its best drive of the night, Columbus took over at midfield with 1 minute, 5 seconds left in the first half, trailing 12-0. The Falcons needed to use all three timeouts to make sure the proper personnel were on the field early in the drive. Eventually, Columbus faced first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. 

 

A passing play then resulted in an inbounds tackle at the 3. The clock ran out before the Falcons could get another snap. 

 

"Not scoring before the half killed us," Kirk said. "After not scoring last week (in a 37-0 loss to South Panola), we just needed something good to happen. Going into the locker room down one score would have given us a chance. It just proved too much to overcome." 

 

Sophomore quarterback Ethan Conner threw three interceptions in the second half. One was retuned 69 yards to the Columbus 1. Shawn Wade brought the next one back 60 yards for a touchdown. 

 

Columbus had 296 yards. In his final game, Derrick Jordan had 15 carries for 71 yards. Kris Lucious had an interception, while Jaylan Stewart had a strip and Mario Martin a fumble recovery. 

 

"We played with a lot of emotion tonight, especially the seniors," Kirk said. "For the defense, we played our hearts out. It really hurts to end this way." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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