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By JOEL COLEMAN
The Starkville Academy Volunteers have raised more than a few eyebrows this season with the way they have rolled to the cusp of a division title.
Ironically, the Vols have even given a little bit of a shock to the man who occupies the head coach's office.
As SA (8-1 overall, 3-1 in conference play) gets ready to host East Rankin Academy tonight at 7 p.m. at J.E. Logan Field, where a Vols win would wrap up a district championship, Starkville Academy head coach Jeff Terrill admits that even he has been taken back with the way his team has performed to get to this point.
"I'm surprised, just up front, that we're 8-1," said Terrill. "I talk very open to the kids about how we never dreamed this. And even when things started going good, I really felt like we'd go out there and lay an egg one night for the very humble reason that we're not talented enough to go out and play halfway and still beat the teams we've played.
"So I think they've all shown a good level of maturity to get here."
'Here' is Starkville Academy's most important game since the school's state championship season of 2005.
'Here' is SA's chance to host a first-round playoff game.
'Here' is also quite the challenge in the form of East Rankin (5-4 overall, 2-2 in conference play).
"Basically, when you talk to coaches around the state, they expect East Rankin to be the favored team," said Terrill. "They've got, what many consider, the best quarterback in the state of Mississippi (Jacob Welden). He's tremendous and he's going to be a tremendous challenge to stop. He throws the ball well. He runs the ball well.
"Defensively and offensively, they've got one of the top linemen in the state, especially in the private school league (Tyler Gray). We're just fortunate enough to get to play the game at home. We're just hoping we can circle the wagons and put together our best game of the year."
SA will rely upon a familiar formula to try and succeed against East Rankin, trying to milk the clock with its ball-control oriented, triple-option offense.
"We're just going to do what we do," said Vols junior quarterback Drew Pellum. "We're just going back to the basics and focusing on running the things that we run well."
Pellum will, as always, have help in the backfield in the form of senior fullback Ryan Mann, who needs just 56 rushing yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Mann says he and his teammates are ready to step up and try and make Starkville Academy's already-special season just a little bit more memorable.
"It's the biggest game of the year up to now," said Mann. "To win it would be huge. Getting to host a home (playoff) game and being the No. 1 seed just makes it that much easier to make it to the championship and it gives us that much better of a chance."
Perhaps giving SA an edge in the contest is the simple fact that the game will be played at home.
Terrill says he's not sure how much it helps playing on familiar ground, but it's definitely better than the alternative.
"Of course it's not like playing in the SEC, but it's comfortable being at home," said Terrill. "I'll be disappointed if we don't have the largest crowd here since the state championship year."
With a playoff-like game at hand, the atmosphere will no doubt be electric regardless of how many are in the stands.
From there, Terrill says it's all in the players' hands what transpires.
"The biggest thing I'm proud of is these kids get to experience a big-time high school football game like this," said Terrill. "We joked and told them the air is just going to smell different when they step out there.
"As a coach, I've always said if we can just get (the team) to the big game, it's going to be up to them to win it."