By JOEL COLEMAN
CLINTON – Starkville Academy’s fairy tale of a football season fell just short of its storybook ending.
A costly pair of second-quarter turnovers by SA allowed Washington School to take a 17-0 lead by halftime Friday afternoon in the MAIS Class AAA-II state championship game, letting the Generals grab control as they eventually sent the Volunteers to a 20-0 loss.
“The biggest thing was those two turnovers,” said Starkville Academy head coach Jeff Terrill. “That gave them 10 points. If we could have gone in (to halftime) at 7-0, it maybe could have been a different contest in the second half. But they’re a great team and Washington did a great job.”
The Washington win captured the school’s third state championship in four years.
The title victory comes just one year after the Generals’ sub-par 2010 season, when they finished with just a 5-6 overall record.
Washington concluded this season with an 11-1 overall record and a crown.
“We started working hard for this as soon as last season was over,” said Washington head coach Philip Wasson. “We gave the team a week off, but when everybody else was in the playoffs last year, we started working then. We told the guys, the only way to get to this point is hard work. We woke up at 5:30 in the morning, four days a week for a long time. That’s a lot of hard work, but these kids did that and it paid off.”
In a matchup anticipated to be a defensive showdown, the Generals defense absolutely changed the course of the game.
Washington held the Starkville Academy offense to just 151 yards of total offense and only seven first downs.
The Volunteers weren’t even able to move the ball past midfield until late in the third quarter.
As impressive as the Generals were at limiting the Vols, it was Washington’s ability to force turnovers that proved to be SA’s undoing.
With Washington having already taken a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter on an 85-yard drive that culminated on a 9-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Hayden Lewis to Wil Skelton, Generals defensive back Dylan Elkins then picked off a pass and recovered a fumble in a span of 2 minutes, leading to a pair of Washington scores.
Elkins’ interception of Vols quarterback Ryan McKell with 2:53 remaining before the intermission was returned 47 yards for a touchdown to put the Generals up 14-0.
Starkville Academy fumbled on its ensuing possession with Elkins recovering, setting up a Nathan Noble 26-yard field goal that stretched Washington’s lead to 17-0.
With Washington grabbing the momentum, Starkville Academy found itself reeling at halftime.
Vols senior offensive and defensive lineman Angus Catchot said he and his teammates were doing everything they could to right the SA ship.
“There were a few players that really didn’t hold it together too well, but as a team, we tried to push them up and motivate them to do their best that they possibly could,” said Catchot.
Terrill’s halftime message to his club was similar to the lesson Catchot and other SA players were teaching.
“We were disappointed (at the half), but we just told them to come and play like champions and believe in each other and I think we did that,” said Terrill.
Despite SA’s best efforts, a Washington defense that allowed fewer than 10 points per game on average this season wouldn’t break.
With McKell at quarterback in place of injured starter Drew Pellum, who broke his collarbone in the Vols’ final regular season game, SA was essentially rendered one-dimensional.
“You don’t want to have sour grapes, but anytime you get in a big game, and our guy Ryan McKell did a great job, but he was a No. 3 quarterback with one good arm and hadn’t practiced at quarterback until a week ago,” said Terrill.
McKell finished just 1-of-8 passing for 8 yards with two interceptions, allowing Washington to completely focus on Starkville Academy’s running game.
“All year long, if all you can do is run the ball, we’ve been able to stop that,” said Wasson. “We’ve got fast guys. We’re not big, but we feel like if all you can do is run, we feel good about any game we play like that.”
SA’s Colby Runnels and Ryan Mann each found limited success against the Generals on the ground with Runnels rushing for 64 yards and Mann gaining 60 yards.
Washington’s Ryan Gober paced the Generals offense with 128 yards.
Noble added a second field goal with 6:33 left in the third quarter to cap the game’s scoring.
Just a few minutes of football later, SA’s season ended with an overall record of 10-3.
Though the conclusion wasn’t as fitting as he had originally hoped, Catchot said he and the Vols have plenty to be proud of with their 2011 season.
“We came together as a team,” said Catchot. “We played hard. It’s not just one person either. It’s everybody stepping up and doing their job. The teamwork that we had really held us together all the way to the state championship game.”