By DANNY P. SMITH
The bar was raised to a new level for the Starkville Yellowjackets.
With the success the Jackets enjoyed this football season which took them all of the way to Jackson and the Class 5A State Championship game, a standard has been set.
There's still a bad taste less than a week removed from dropping a 38-21 decision to Picayune in the state title game, but Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said his team can be proud of the things accomplished during the course of the season.
"We'll take being on that stage every year," Mitchell said. "There's nothing that hurts any worse than losing that, but the reality of what it took to get there and everything we had to do right to get to that points was overwhelming. It's been a great experience for our kids, coaches and community as well."
After beginning the season with a 2-2 record in four games, the Jackets swept through Class 5A, Region 2 undefeated (7-0) and put up at least 35 points six times in the process.
Starkville continued that momentum into the playoffs where it defeated Hernando 42-28, West Point 20-14 and Ridgeland 28-7. The Jackets had to go back to Ridgeland where they had already won 26-23 in the regular season and knocked off the Titans against to claim the North 5A crown and set up the meeting with Picayune.
Mitchell said having players step up in key roles and finding an identity on offense were the areas that fueled the success during the season.
The first was having linebackers Dennis Ware and Taylor Johnston step in after David Fair and J.B. Barriare went down with season-ending injuries.
Ware finished as the leading tackler for SHS with 127 tackles, while Johnston emerged to register 88 stops.
"Speaking for our coaching staff, we never saw that coming," Mitchell said. "We were devastated (after the loss of Fair and Barriare) and didn't know what direction to turn, but it was a huge plus for us."
Offensively, the Jackets were led by quarterback Gabe Myles, running back Preston Baker and wide receiver Devin Mitchell.
After stepping in for the departed Jaquez Johnson, Myles capped an outstanding junior season by completing 114-of-250 pass attempts for 1,916 yards and 19 touchdowns. He was also the leading rusher for Starkville with 1,018 yards on 208 carries and 13 more scores.
"We saw the evolution of our offense," Mitchell said. "About midway (through the season) we found out what we could do."
Starkville's 12-3 overall mark and making it back to Jackson will be difficult to duplicate next season.
Mitchell gave a list of things that have to happen for the Jackets to go on a similar run in the future.
"It takes a great team, great playmaking, staying healthy, no distractions and a lot of luck too," Mitchell said. "You've got to roll all of those things together.
"From now until August is a long time. We've got to have kids who act right in school. We can't lose them because of eligibility and can't lose them because of discipline. There are so many things that can happen between now and August, but our coaching staff does a good job of staying on top of as much of that as you can. To be honest, no matter how much you try to stay on top of things kids are going to be kids, but we are going to do the best we can."
Mitchell said the talk has already begun during coaching meetings and around town about a repeat trip to Jackson next year.
"Whether we can get back there or not, only time will tell, but we certainly feel like the pieces are here to have another great run next year," Mitchell said.