Clutch time: Starkville Academy plugs up Leake with defense

Zach Barnes comes up with a loose football for Starkville Academy.
Staff Writer

Two things have made the Starkville Academy Volunteers season this year – defense and clutch plays.

Friday night’s game against the Leake Academy Rebels with the 2-AAA championship on the line provided much of both.

The Volunteers (9-1, 4-0) used three turnovers defensively and some pressure on the quarterback to help hold the Rebels at bay for most of the game. The offense did its job the rest of the way and won the game 21-13.

Starkville Academy head coach Chase Nicholson thought his team could have played better, but he’ll always take the win.

“First and foremost, we’re district champs,” Nicholson said. “I’m proud of our guys and what they did to get here. We’ve got to be better and I’ve got to be better. We’ve been inconsistent in our play. Mentally we’ve got to find a different gear.”

Among some of the heroes defensively for the night was junior cornerback Ben Guest. Leake went after Guest with its top receiver Keric Estep, who caught two passes on jump balls, but Guest won most of those battles including three pass breakups and an interception.

“I just had to trust myself and trust my coverage,” Guest said. “We just knew that they weren’t going to be able to beat us anymore. We kept playing together.”

Leake struck first when they got a three and out and then took a chance on fourth down. A pass 21 yards down the field was defended well by Guest but Estep made the catch for the touchdown and 7-0 lead.

Starkville Academy led a dominating offensive possession from there rushing the football eight times for 70 yards and Nason Heflin scored a 12-yard touchdown. Though the Vols missed the field goal, the defense got them the football right back when Howell Archer forced a fumble that was recovered by Zach Barnes. As the game went into the second quarter, Noah Methvin found William Wolfe for a 14-yard touchdown and SA had a 14-7 lead.

A turning point in the first half came on the next possession. Leake seemed poised to tie the game as it got the football to the 2-yard-line on fourth down. Kyle Faver brought the blitz on the quarterback and the football went into the hands of Willie Latham for the interception.

SA marched the football right down the field before the half and drove 80 yards as Heflin scored from 7 yards out for the 21-7 halftime lead.

The third quarter and early fourth was all about defense and special teams. The Vols had Campbell Spivey block a punt and Leake had a blocked field goal attempt and a forced fumble on Methvin to keep the score where it was midway through the final quarter.

That fumble coupled with several penalties on the ensuing drive led to a score from a yard out by Leake’s Shawn Myers. A missed extra point had SA’s lead cut to 21-13 with 6:18 left.

After an onside kick was recovered by the Rebels, they were back in business. The Volunteer defense once again made a play with momentum shifting when a deep pass into the end zone was intercepted by Sam Clark all but sealing the game.

Though Leake (6-4, 2-2) had one more shot at it in the final 2 minutes, the SA defense stood tall to bring home another district championship.

The Vols had big plays all night from the defense with three interceptions a fumble and three sacks. Will Miller led the way with the sacks posting 2.5 for the night.

“The defense played like you expected them too,” Nicholson said. “They kept fighting and kept battling. They were lights out. I hate leaning on them, but they come through for us.”

There was also plenty to be happy about offensively.

SA ran all over the Rebels for 204 yards on 32 carries averaging 6.4 yards a rush. The carries were shared among Taylor Arnold, Heflin and Methvin, who had 80, 71 and 53 yards respectively. Methvin also was sharp passing the football going 7-for-11 for 98 yards and a touchdown.

Raegan Richardson had four catches for 60 yards in the win.

The Vols sealed up home field advantage throughout the playoffs with their win and are the No. 2 seed overall behind Indianola Academy, which remains their only loss for the year.