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By JOEL COLEMAN
Halfway through the 2011 football season, it's been a successful five-game stretch for the Starkville Academy Volunteers.
Behind an offense averaging more than 35 points per game and a defense that is allowing, on average, just over six points per game, SA currently sits with a perfect 5-0 record and a 1-0 mark in District 2, Class AAA-II of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools.
It's with all those impressive credentials that Starkville Academy heads southward tonight for a 7 p.m. divisional showdown against Jackson Prep (4-1 overall, 1-0 in division play).
"You're going against, probably no doubt, the premier program in this league for the last 40-something or 50-something years," said Vols head coach Jeff Terrill. "I even wanted to joke with (Jackson Prep head coach Ricky Black) on if he's ever even lost to a Division II team before in his tenure. I don't know that he has. But our kids are excited, and we hope we'll go play well and we'll see what happens."
Jackson Prep should provide Starkville Academy with its biggest challenge to date.
Of the Vols' first five opponents this season (St. Andrews, Heritage Academy, Magnolia Heights, Leake Academy and Hillcrest), none of the five currently have a winning record.
Combined, those five schools have compiled just an 8-17 mark coming into play this week.
Meanwhile, Jackson Prep has suffered just one loss this season, a 34-9 defeat at the hands of MHSAA Class 5A Pearl last week.
The talent that the Patriots have relied on to be so successful isn't lost on Terrill.
Nor is the intangible factors that Terrill believes sets the Patriots apart.
"I think the biggest thing that I'm impressed with about Jackson Prep is...their intensity level," said Terrill. "They win because their kids play hard. All of their kids play with such a great level of intensity that we're going to have to try and find a way to match."
Like their coach, the Starkville Academy players are also well aware of the team that stands in front of them tonight.
Though Terrill himself has tried to keep this week as normal as possible, SA's second-year leader says his club has seemed even more focused this week than usual.
"I don't know if I've really thought about it any more than just another game," said Terrill. "I think, naturally, the kids know what kind of challenge they're facing. So I think they put a little more effort into it just because they know that they're the underdog and (Jackson Prep) is a great team that is going to play hard and do things well. But they're excited about the opportunity."
If the Vols are to make the most of their chance to upend the Patriots, a lot hinges on how well SA fares at slowing down Jackson Prep tailback Hamel McGraw and quarterback Ryan Buchanan.
The Starkville Academy offense may also have its hands full against a defense that Terrill admitted is one of, if not the best, defenses the Vols will see all year.
"(McGraw) has got great speed, good vision and runs hard," said Terrill. "(Buchanan) has really got the size and skill to run and throw, so he'll certainly be a tremendous challenge.
"(Defensively) it's not just any one player. They've got a lot of good players, but they're not super big. They just really play hard, run hard to the ball and play with great intensity. That's going to really be the biggest challenge again is trying to stay with that."
Terrill doesn't just hope SA can stay with Jackson Prep, however. He also hopes the Vols can learn to emulate the Patriots' aggressive style.
For that reason, Terrill believes his team can improve themselves, win or lose, during tonight's game.
"I think the biggest thing we hope that we'll take from it is, we talk to the kids all the time about taking things to another level, that they've got another gear and can play faster and harder," said Terrill. "When you play a bigger school, that naturally comes into play.
"It'll certainly help and improve our program playing Jackson Prep."