The Starkville Yellowjackets scrimmage on Thursday in preparation for today's Class 5A State championship game against Pascagoula. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)
Now the Starkville Yellowjackets can think about it.
At the beginning of the season, SHS football coach Jamie Mitchell downplayed a potential return to the Class 5A State championship game because of all the pressure that comes with it.
The Jackets decided to take things week by week and deal with each opponent as they appeared on the schedule.
That strategy has worked as Starkville finds itself right back where it was last year and playing for the State championship. The Jackets take on the Pascagoula Panthers tonight with kickoff at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium set for 7 p.m.
Even when SHS started the season 1-3, Mitchell didn't want his team to look ahead or back.
"It goes back to the first of the year and it was very important to me," Mitchell said. "There was so much pressure on this team after making the State championship last year, had so many people coming back and were the odds on favorite to get back to Jackson. That was a lot of burden for the guys to carry and then we had the bad start.
"I told them that I wanted them to enjoy every week and don't think about the State championship. That would come if we took care of us. It really became the way we looked at it. We prepared every week for that opponent and tried our best to not look ahead. We didn't want to think about anything else and just focus in on one week at a time. I think that helped us some."
The Jackets have won 10-straight games, including a sweep of all seven opponents in Class 5A, Region 2. They claimed their second-straight Class 5A North State title with last Friday's thrilling 29-28 victory over the West Point Green Wave in overtime.
The progress of Starkville is evident as it recovered from a 47-22 loss to West Point during the regular season.
"One of the strengths of our team is we get better as we go," Mitchell said. "I certainly don't think it's anything we do as coaches. We just may simplify things and get our kids comfortable in what they are doing. I feel like we are a better football team than the first time we played (West Point)."
The Jackets are led offensively by senior quarterback Gabe Myles.
Myles has completed 81-of-171 pass attempts for 1,146 yards and 13 touchdowns with 554 yards rushing on 127 carries and nine more scores.
"Myles is a phenomenal athlete and seems like a good guy all of the way around," Pascagoula coach Lewis Sims said.
Senior Preston Baker leads SHS in rushing with 867 yards on 119 carries and 10 touchdowns, while sophomore Jaquez Horsley adds 777 yards on 111 attempts and nine scores.
Senior wide receiver Kentrell Spencer has 24 catches for 482 yards and six touchdowns.
Spencer, Darius Grayer and Princeton Jones start at receiver for the Jackets, while Baker and Myles start in the backfield. Stanley Higgins is the tight end, Jawon Johnson is the right tackle, Kyle Jones is the right guard, Jalen Henderson is the center, AJ Smith is the left guard and Josh Kitchens is the left tackle.
Defensively, David Fair and LeeEdward Jefferson are the defensive ends, Johnson, Jones and Justin Ware are the other defensive linemen, Taylor Johnston and Marlow Rogers are the linebackers, Raphael McClain and Jacoby Smith are the cornerbacks, and Johnny Smith and Devonte Davis are the safeties. Johnston leads SHS with 103 tackles.
"They are a very well-coached team," Sims said of the Jackets. "Coach Mitchell's reputation proceeds him and I got a chance to meet him on several occasions. I know he and his staff do a really good job with preparing the team.
"When you look at them, they are by far, one of the most athletic and most skilled teams we've played all year long with a lot of speed at the skilled positions. Defensive back-wise, they are solid and their linebackers are big, strong and can run to the football well. The defensive front gives you a lot of different looks. We're trying to figure out how to compete with those guys."
With the game being today, Starkville and Pascagoula both had an extra day to prepare.
Mitchell said there was a pretty healthy debate during a coaches meeting about exactly how to handle the week of preparation.
"There were a lot of different opinions, but I think we came up with a pretty good solution," Mitchell said. "The thing I like is it does give you one more day of work and preparation."
Unlike last year when the Jackets went to Jackson on Friday, it was Mitchell's plan to wait until today to take the squad there. Mitchell, the coaches and players met Friday night, had a meal and watched the Class 6A State championship on television.
"Not knowing how to handle all of the logistics, that's been a burden on what to do with them, how to handle it and where to go," Mitchell said. "You want to do the best thing and that's what we're trying to do."
This is Starkville's ninth State championship game appearance. It won titles in 1984, 1994, 1995 and 2001.
Mitchell hopes the city and community will make the trip to Jackson to support the Jackets' latest quest to bring home a State championship.
"I hope our city will get behind these guys because they deserve some great support," Mitchell said. "That means so much to them.
"The kids are in great spirits and I sense a hunger from them that they are certainly not satisfied. I believe we're going to go and play a great ballgame."
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