Game of the Week: Improving Jackets host Tigers in 6A first round

Starkville High School defense

Staff Writer

In just about every facet, the Starkville Yellow Jackets are better than they were a year ago.

SHS has already scored 30 more points than they did all of last year with four less games played to this point. The Jackets went 10-1 in the regular season this year after finishing 10-2 last season. Players are bigger, stronger and faster than they were a year ago and they’re more experienced after the rigors of last season’s schedule.

The only thing missing to make 2018 a success is to win a state championship. Last year’s team was able to produce a postseason run that carried them to another trip to the Class 6A State championship. The title was within their grasps but they came up short after Pearl scored a last-minute touchdown.

SHS head coach Chris Jones has preached to his team the importance of not taking any moment from here on out for granted. One bad game or even one bad play could end the dreams of so many, so quickly.

“I think we’re in a good spot and we’re starting to get better,” Jones said. “My message to them is to practice like it’s the last game, prepare like it’s the last game and play like it’s the last game because if you don’t, it will be. We’ve got to make sure we understand not to take plays off.”

By virtue of finishing second in Region 2, the Jackets get to host the first playoff game as they welcome in a familiar face to Yellow Jacket Stadium Friday night in the form of legendary coach Ricky Woods. It was just four seasons ago when Woods led SHS to a state championship in his first season in Starkville.

After two seasons, Woods decided to leave his post and return back to Batesville where he won four state championships with the South Panola Tigers. The program isn’t what it was when Woods first put it on the national map, but he’s still coaching and Jones said that makes his team a dangerous out.

“He left this program in great shape and left a year after they won a state championship," Jones said. "It’s very hard to win a state championship and do it in your first year. When I took the job, he told me that we had some really good kids coming up and he did a good job setting the table.”

The Tigers (7-5) come into the game finishing third in Region 1 with losses to some tough competition in Horn Lake, Clinton, Brandon and Oxford. They’re weathered and they still have the athletes that make this a tough first round match up for the Jackets.

Add in the fact that Woods has coached most of the senior leaders on the team and he has a bit of an edge on SHS. Running back KJ Lawrence played for Woods and helped win a state title as a ninth grader as well as being a primary running back in Woods’ final season in 2016. He’s looking forward to seeing his former coach, but admits he wants to hand him a loss.

“That was our old coach so there’s going to be a little competition," Lawrence said. "He knows most of our skill sets and what we used to do for him. It’s going to give us a drive to beat him since he used to be our coach and he left.”

The Jackets enter the game with a balanced offense attack of nearly 200 yards passing and 200 rushing per game. Luke Altmyer is completing passes at a 69 percent clip in his sophomore season with 1,753 yards, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions in 11 games. His top receiver is junior Rufus Harvey, who has caught 47 passes for 821 yards and eight scores. Tae Lucious has 22 catches for 315 yards and seven touchdowns.

Rodrigues Clark is pushing for Player of the Year honors with his 1,178 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns and his hit 100 yards rushing in eight games this season and averaged 7.5 yards per rush.

The Starkville defense has been one of the best in the state this season and it has surrendered a region low 113 points this season. Linebacker Zach Edwards has a team-high 68 tackles and 22.0 tackles for loss and eight sacks this year. Defensive tackle Jaylan Ware isn’t far behind with his impressive 67 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and six sacks.

All of those players have to be at their best for the next few weeks if the Jackets are to garner revenge from last season’s heartbreaking loss in the state title. It begins Friday night and Jones expects his team to play as if the game is the last.

“The playoffs are a different level of intensity," Jones said. "Forget playing with 100 percent, you’ve got to play with 150 percent. You’re literally scratching and crawling to do whatever it takes to get that win. I don’t want to go home and the kids don’t want to go home so I expect us to come out and play well.”