CAMDEN — Two weeks before neighboring rivals met on the field to kickoff the 2004 football season, Canton High School players Dominique Puckett, Kerry Stewart and Desmond Ratliff guaranteed a victory.

"They lost all their backs from last season, so they'll be weak," remarked Stewart on a hot summer day before football practice began, and a full 16 days before the Tigers would travel to Velma Jackson for the annual grudge-match to kick off the season.

Stewart was correct in his assessment of Velma Jackson's depleted team — a team that lost 16 seniors from their 2003 Region 4-3A champions squad. Velma Jackson could not muster enough offense in the second half to regain the lead. The Falcons could not put enough into their defensive front nor secondary to stop Canton quarterback Ratliff, and tailback Puckett. Along with Stewart, each had touchdowns on the night as the Tigers tamed the Falcons, 32-12.

"We tried to establish some short passes early, and it wasn't there so we went back to the running game," remarked Canton High School Head Coach James Davis. "It finally broke through for us. The offensive line started opening holes and we ran it behind them. The difference in the third quarter was we established a running game."

Second-year Velma Jackson Head Coach Bart King said his team faced some conditioning problems as the heat and humidity remained high into the late evening hours.

He added, "they did a good job. I think (Canton) is the better team. We were making mistakes, made adjustments at halftime and we did a better job in the second half, but combined with other things, we just couldn't score."

Leading by two points, 14-12, early in the third quarter, Canton had two drives stall out to begin the second half. After a Falcons' punt, the Tigers went to work on the ground game. When you need to gain some yards, and gain some with power, Davis and the Tigers' line gave Gary Johnson the call.

"In the second half, he started lowering his shoulder and throwing some good blocks that Dominique (Puckett) could run behind," Davis said.

With 7:40 remaining in the third quarter, Johnson rumbled for nine yards and a crucial first down. It followed Puckett's 20-yard scramble on a toss sweep. The Falcons then committed some mental errors and gave Canton 20 more yards that resulted from penalties. Johnson got the call again from Velma's 21-yard line. He rumbled to the nine, and then Puckett hammered it home from nine yards out. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but the Tigers were in command, 20-12.

"They blitzed the inside, so we just took to the outside," Puckett said after the game. "We wanted it really bad. There was a lot of bragging during the week. We looked sloppy for the first few series, but then we finally got it together."

Velma Jackson would march down field, and like the defense enabled Canton, Canton returned the favor by giving the Falcons 20 yards on penalties. The Falcons drive, however, stopped cold at mid-field. Shortly before they turned the ball over on downs, junior quarterback Derrick Vaughan left the field suffering from cramps and back strain. Credit defensive lineman Dexter Johnson and Corey Esco, along with linebackers Eric Kiner and Roderick Hardy for creating havoc for the Falcons' mixed bag of screen passes and runs.

"I think the defense stepped up big," said Davis. "Eric Kiner is a player who hadn't played the last couple of years. Playing linebacker, he did a heck of a job. With him we started creating a lot of problems (for Velma) in the backfield so the quarterback could get off their passes. To win some ball games this season, that's what we'll have to do. Our defense will have to be better than last year."

When Canton's offense returned to the field with 1:54 remaining in the third, the ground game provided by Puckett and Johnson opened up Ratliff's receivers, especially Richard Worthy. Facing a third and five from their own 38-yard line, Worthy leaped to haul in a tight spiral from Ratliff, good for an 18-yard pick-up. That set up the Tigers next score that came with 10:57 left in the fourth quarter.

The two-point play failed again, but the Tigers had taken a 26-12 lead after the 7-play, 79-yard drive.

Canton then held Velma Jackson to four downs and out, after Deedra Day returned the ball 61 yards on the kickoff. Taking over on their own 35-yard line, Canton appeared to fizzle out on offense as Velma's defensive front limited Johnson and Puckett's rushing attempts. The Falcons, however, roughed the punter that resulted in an automatic first down. Two plays later, Worthy hauled in a 61-yard touchdown pass from Ratliff for the final score in the game.

"We kept trying to get him on the fade, but they jumped on it. After we established the run, we called a post corner and Ratliff put the ball right out there for him," said Davis about Worthy's touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Ratliff had an extraordinary night, finishing the game 8-for-12, 190 yards and three touchdowns. He added 52 yards rushing.

"My career is just beginning," the junior Ratliff responded to the question if he had had a career night. "I got my main man, my tight end Kerry Stewart, and I got (receiver) Richard Worthy. They were blitzing with their linebackers, and that left my tight ends wide open all night. And I think my line did a great job — Corey Esco, Jay Stokes, Jessie Tucker — those are my main lineman because they're seniors. It's their last year and we had to go out with a win for them because it's their last time to be playing against Velma Jackson."

In the first quarter, Vaughan got Velma Jackson on the board first when he connected with Derrick Perry for a 7-yard touchdown strike. Canton answered when Ratliff hit Stewart on an inside slant. Ratliff found Worthy in the endzone for the two-point conversion with 7:54 left in the second quarter.

The Falcons did not get dismayed by trailing 8-6. Vaughan hit sophomore E.J. Smith for a 17-yard gainer that put the Falcons on Canton's 5-yard line. Vaughan then handed off to Robert Harris for the touchdown run. The two-point attempt failed, but Velma had a 12-8 lead.

Canton came right back. Taking over on their own 37-yard line, Ratliff hit Stewart for a 39-yard gainer. From the Falcons' 10-yard line, Ratliff attempted to sweep around the strong-side, until defensive back Rodney Vaughan put a bone-popping hit on the junior quarterback. Ratliff did gain about eight yards. On the next play Johnson got the call and moved defenders out of his way until he reached paydirt.

The Tigers were balanced through the night chewing up 232 yards on 39 attempts. Combined with Ratliff's passing numbers, Canton gained a total 422 yards on offense.

Next up for Canton will be a trip to West Point — a team that defeated Noxubee County only 6-0.

"Thing about that game, if we go up there and do well, we'll have to minimize mistakes and don't let them make the big plays."

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