By JAMES CARSKADON
For Starkville Daily News
When Jeff Terrill took over a winless Starkville Academy team after the 2009 season, it would have been hard to imagine him getting a Gatorade bath and winning a district title just two years later, but that was exactly the scene Friday night.
Behind 119 yards on the ground from senior running back Ryan Mann and a stellar defensive performance, the Volunteers held off East Rankin Academy 18-7 to claim the South District II championship. The win also guarantees SA (9-1, 4-1 in conference play) will host in the playoffs.
For Terrill, it would take some time to realize how big the moment is for a program that has not had a winning season since winning a state championship in 2005.
“It hasn’t sunk in, but to come from where we came from, I couldn’t be more proud of our kids,” Terrill said.
The game was a defensive struggle, but East Rankin started off with some fireworks on the opening kickoff as Colby Crotwell ran the opening kick back 84 yards for a touchdown to give the Patriots an early 7-0 edge.
Faced with an early deficit, the Volunteers saw two opportunities to pull even with the Patriots. Behind the rushing attack of quarterback Drew Pellum and running back Colby Runnels, the Vols drove 70 yards to the East Rankin 8-yard-line early in the second quarter, but were unable to score and settled for a 25-yard field goal from Tripp Janssen.
Later in the second quarter, SA went for it on fourth and goal from the 1-yard-line, but Mann was stopped short and East Rankin maintained its 7-3 lead. However, with the Patriots pinned deep in their own territory, a host of Volunteer tacklers, led by Taylor Hunt and Mann, tackled East Rankin quarterback Jacob Weldon in the end zone for a safety.
The Patriots’ 7-5 lasted into the third quarter until Pellum was able to break loose for a 64-yard touchdown run up the left side, giving SA the elusive touchdown.
From there, the game was left to the Vols’ swarming defense, which only surrendered two first downs after SA took the lead on Pellum’s touchdown. For the night, the Volunteers held East Rankin to 105 total offensive yards.
“Their defense did a great job and kept us held up except for a couple big plays and there at the end, but our defense played lights out,” Terrill said.
Mann added a game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the game its final score of 18-7. The senior also eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season on senior night and led a Vols ground game that piled up 280 yards in the game. Mann gave credit to his offensive line for the Volunteers success with the run.
“It feels great, but I couldn’t do it without my lineman,” Mann said. “They’ve had a great season and much of that goes to them.”
Mann was among the leaders on the defensive side of the ball, leading the team in tackles along with Stephen Robertson. When asked about the SA’s surprising 9-1 record, Mann said it was a product of everything that took place before the season started.
“I knew we had the talent to do it, it’s just if we put the work into it and the effort,” he said. “We put in a lot of effort in the offseason and in the summer, and its playing off now.”
Terrill has been just as surprised as anyone by the Volunteers’ resurgence. After making “restore the pride” a team motto when he took over as head coach, he admits he still did not see this coming at the beginning of this season.
“We didn’t even believe when we started year two,” Terrill said. “It really is a credit to these kids. They’ve bought in, they’ve continued to work, they continue to believe in themselves. It’s just amazing.”
Now the Volunteers will turn their attention to Presbyterian Christian next Friday in the regular season finale before hosting the first round of the playoffs the following week.
After drying off from getting dunked by the water cooler, Terrill said he knows his team can not become content with what it has already done in 2011 as bigger goals now lie ahead.
“As much as I believe in the kids, we still have a lot of improving to do,” he said.
If the hardware now headed to the Vols’ trophy case is any indication, improvement has not been a problem in the Jeff Terrill era.