By DANNY P. SMITH
The Starkville Yellowjackets have gotten better as the football season has progressed.
Starkville has improved to the point where it has landed in the Class 5A State Championship game. The Jackets play the Picayune Maroon Tide tonight with kickoff set for 7 p.m.
After losing a 33-20 decision to Noxubee County in the season-opener, then falling to West Point 33-12 three weeks later, Starkville won 10 consecutive games - a run that has taken the Jackets to a 12-2 record and all the way to Jackson.
"This is a team that matured very quickly," Starkville football coach Jamie Mitchell said. "Early on, we really didn't know what our identity was and what we could do. It took us midway through the year before we found our personality and what our strengths were.
"We went through some trial and error in trying to figure out who went where and what their role would be. About midway through the year, we found out what our identity was and what we could do. From that point on, we really tried to strengthen those things and got better with what we were good at doing."
Following the disappointing loss to Noxubee County to kick off the season, the Jackets bounced back the next week to edge Madison Central at home 16-14.
That win over a Class 6A opponent that ended up in the North State Championship let Starkville players like Cory Cannon know the potential of the squad.
"The first game against Noxubee the defense didn't play like we knew it could, but against Madison Central, we stepped up and played Starkville defense like we knew we could," Cannon said. "All during the season, the offense started clicking so it made us a greater team with a lot of playmakers."
The Jackets who emerged were quarterback Gabe Myles, running back Preston Baker, wide receiver Devin Mitchell, linebacker Dennis Ware and others.
Coach Mitchell knew he had some players with ability going into the season, but it was a matter of seeing that come out in games.
"As we got under the lights and into the battles, we saw some of those guys play better than they practiced," Mitchell said. "We've had some skilled players to really step forward and make some plays for us. We thought they could but until you see them do it, you really don't know."
Myles became a leader at quarterback and has put up huge numbers. He has completed 108-of-223 pass attempts for 1,867 yards with 19 touchdowns and is Starkville's leading rusher with 849 yards on 185 carries and 10 more scores.
Baker has been a valuable offensive weapon for the Jackets with 445 yards rushing and 407 yards receiving, while Devin Mitchell is the leading receiver with 33 catches for 809 yards.
Starkville offensive coordinator Preston Leathers was glad to see that type of production after losing so much talent from last year's team.
"We started off kind of rocky early in the year and I think it was our youth," Leathers said. "We lost most of our yards last year with Quez (Jaquez Johnson), Garrett (Smith), Shaquille (Hill) and Martavious (Foster). It was just figuring out what direction we wanted to go in and getting our younger players going. It started to click at about Callaway and that's where we got it going a little bit."
Starkville has out-rushed and out-passed opponents this season. The Jackets average 178.4 yards per game on the ground and have held teams to 138.9. They have gotten 150.4 yards passing per outing and kept squads to 95 per game.
After losing linebackers David Fair and J.B. Barriare to season-ending injuries early in the season, the SHS defense had to adjust.
Ware stepped in at one linebacker spot and leads the Jackets with 112 tackles. He also has 14 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Taylor Johnston has recorded 75 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
Starkville defensive coordinator Brooks Oakley said his unit has followed the theme from week to week.
"I feel like we've gotten better as the year has gone on," Oakley said. "We've got a challenge this week because Picayune runs it really well and we've got our work cut out for us."
Picayune (12-2) swept through the Class 5A South playoffs with victories over McComb 35-6, Pascagoula 20-14 and Pearl River Central 45-10.
Mitchell said his team and the Maroon Tide may be a little ahead of schedule to get to this point because both are junior and sophomore heavy.
"I think both of us may be a little surprised that it happened this year," Mitchell said. "They are a great football team and wouldn't be here if they weren't. They are extremely well-coached and don't make mistakes, take care of the football and have a tremendously great running attack.
"They are proficient in throwing, but they certainly hang their hat on the running game."
Picayune's running game is led by Dereonte Magee, who has 1,834 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns.
The Jackets respect what the Maroon Tide bring to the table.
"We're not going to take our opponents lightly," Cannon said.