By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
BATESVILLE – Marcus Henry grew up wanting to become a Tiger.
So did Lee Self.
Playing football for South Panola High School’s successful program – eight state championships since former coach Willis Wright started it all by leading the 1993 Tigers to a 15-0 record and a 5A state title – is something many youngsters in this rural Mississippi county aspire to do.
And why not? The program has produced plenty of roar since Wright’s tenure.
Last year’s team finished with a 14-1 record and won a Class 6A state title with Henry and Self in the lineup. It was the program’s sixth state championship since 2002 and its eighth overall.
In eight seasons, including 2002 and this year’s 7-0 start, South Panola teams have compiled a remarkable 124-3 record, won 59 consecutive Division 1-6A games, and played in all eight state championship games.
“There’s something special about South Panola football,” said Henry, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior wide receiver.
For that reason, there’s no shortage of candidates for the football team.
“We all started young, playing in the community youth league,” Henry said. “I know I’ve played football since I was seven.”
Self’s father was a Tiger in the ’80s.
“He said they’ve always been good,” said the team’s starting quarterback. “We’ve got a great tradition here.”
Work ethic, family
Lance Pogue, the fourth head coach to lead the Tigers to a state championship, said there’s no magic formula for the program’s years of continued success.
“We’re a blue-collar team,” he said prior to Tuesday’s weather-shortened workout. “These players have a lot of pride. This program means so much to them.
“It means a lot to this community, too. The team’s the talk of the town.”
South Panola’s quarterbacks/receivers coach, David Wilkerson, has served two tenures in the program. He credits a lot of its success – which didn’t happen overnight – to families with strong athletic backgrounds.
“You look back over the years and you’ll see a lot of the same names – Sanford, Strong, Barksdale,” he said. “I asked one of our players this year, ‘How many of these guys are related to you?’ He counted 16.”
Henry says the family connections are real. “We’re all kin … somehow,” he said, then smiled. “This team is like a family. We’re dedicated to being right here, at this field.
“South Panola football is half our lives.”
Another talent-rich South Panola team travels to Tupelo this Friday for the regionally televised “Y’all vs. Us” game.
Two weeks ago, the Tigers crushed one of the division’s better teams, Olive Branch, 42-7, on the road. Memphis University School, which handed South Panola its lone regular season loss in eight years, 21-19 in 2009, received payback this season, a 39-2 loss.
“When we line up in our wildcat formation, everybody who could potentially touch the ball is a D1-caliber player,” said Wilkerson, a former Tupelo assistant and New Albany head coach. “My job’s easy. I just make sure our guys know when the bus leaves.”
South Panola’s practice routine Tuesday was no different than any other high school team’s. The Tigers lifted weights, watched film of their opponent, Tupelo, and went through a spirited, competitive workout.
“Compete, compete,” Pogue screamed as he went from group to group during the session.
“Tupelo’s good,” another coach told the defense. “They’ve got a running back, his name’s (Ashton) Shumpert, who rushed for 280 yards last week. It’s going to be embarrassing when he rushes for 290 against you on TV.”
South Panola’s players don’t need any additional prompting to realize they get everybody’s best shot.
“They’re no easy games for us,” Self said. “We know it, so we prepare for it.”
Added Henry, “Every team we play is gunning for us. We’re like the other team’s championship game.”
It’s the price you pay when you become a Tiger.
Contact Gene Phelps at 678-1593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.