East Rankin Academy's coach expects playoff-like atmosphere
As East Rankin head football coach Matt Butts looks ahead to Friday night, he can't help but get a little excited.
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When Butts brings his Patriots to Starkville Academy for a 7 p.m. game, there will be a playoff-like atmosphere surrounding a contest that has division championship ramifications.
A Starkville Academy win gives the Volunteers the conference title.
An East Rankin victory puts the Patriots in the driver's seat for the division crown.
The significance of the four quarters to be played at J.E. Logan Field isn't at all lost on Butts.
"This is the biggest game East Rankin has played in for a long, long time and I'm pretty sure it's one of the biggest games Starkville Academy has played in a while, too," said Butts. " Our guys are very excited about the football game. We do know that Starkville Academy is a tremendous football team and we've got a lot of respect for what they've done this year. What a turnaround that program has had. They're the cream of the crop in the division and we're looking forward to getting out there and playing them."
East Rankin enters Friday's game with an overall record of 5-4 with a 2-2 mark in conference play.
Starkville Academy sports records of 8-1 overall and 3-1 in the division.
Yet don't let the disparity in records fool you.
All of East Rankin's losses have come courtesy of Class AAA-I competition, including defeats at the hands of such powerhouses as Jackson Prep, Madison-Ridgeland Academy and Presbyterian Christian.
Not to mention the fact that East Rankin is a solid team according to Butts.
"We've got an incredibly balanced football team," said Butts. "We're averaging about 187 yards rushing per game and about 179 yards passing. Our run game has gotten better as the season has progressed. Defensively, we struggled a little bit early on, but our defense seems to be getting a lot better the last couple of weeks. Special teams-wise, we seem to be getting a lot better.
"I think we're starting to peak at just the right time."
For East Rankin to ride its recent momentum to a win over Starkville Academy, much of the load could fall on Patriots quarterback Jacob Welden.
Welden, a dual-threat signal-caller, is the unquestionable centerpiece of East Rankin's offensive attack.
"He's a phenomenal football player and a great young man," said Butts of Welden. "He can beat you running and he can beat you throwing when he has to. He's an athlete playing quarterback. He's really developed as a passer. When he's hot, he's really, really hot, but he probably needs to improve his consistency a little bit throwing the football.
"But he's a playmaker with great vision, great speed and great athletic ability."
Welden's play will no doubt be a critical factor in determining if East Rankin's trip to Starkville is successful or not.
Though Butts likes Welden and his team, the two-hour journey to Starkville is actually what has the Patriots leader a bit concerned.
Earlier this season, East Rankin traveled a similar length to Greenwood and fell flat against Pillow Academy, losing to the Mustangs.
Butts hopes his team doesn't experience similar difficulties against SA.
"(Against Pillow), we didn't come out and we didn't play very fast for the first quarter, quarter and half of that football game," said Butts. "If we do that against Starkville Academy, it's going to be a long, long night."
Whether or not the Patriots struggle again on the road remains to be seen.
Whatever happens, Butts can't help but see the bigger picture going into Friday night's game of how two teams that have seen recent struggles will now get to battle it out with a lot on the line.
"You've got two programs that have kind of chartered the same course," said Butts. "Both teams have improved a lot from last year and both teams now have the opportunity to make the playoffs and win the division title."