By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
Jamie Mitchell fully expected to see his Starkville Yellowjackets playing for a state championship … in 2012.
“I’m a little surprised it happened this year,” said Mitchell, whose team (12-2) plays Picayune (12-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday for the MHSAA Class 5A championship at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson. “We have very few seniors who are big-time contributors. We’re junior, sophomore heavy.”
Mitchell figured he had the defense to compete after his program’s move down from 6A. The big question was the offense, one directed by a first-year quarterback Gabe Myles.
The junior signal-caller has put together some impressive numbers in leading the Yellowjackets’ quest for a gold ball – 1,867 yards pass, 849 yards rushing.
“We couldn’t ask more from our quarterback,” Mitchell said.
However, the junior wasn’t alone. His top receiver, junior Devin Mitchell, had 33 catches for 809 yards and 10 TD. Myles got a combined 800 yards rushing from a pair of backs – junior Preston Baker and sophomore Ladorious Pittman. Baker also caught 28 passes for 407 yards and three scores.
“We didn’t have any idea what we could do offensively,” Mitchell said. “It took us midway through the year to find out our personality and what our strengths were.”
Defensively, senior end Dennis Ware has been the leader since linebackers David Fair and J.B. Barriare were sidelined by injuries.
He has recorded 112 tackles, 14 for losses, and two sacks. He’s joined by sophomore linebacker Taylor Johnston, who has registered 75 stops, nine for losses.
Their assignment will be to stop a run-oriented Picayune offense that averages 277 rushing yards per game. The Maroon Tide’s top rusher is tailback Deronte Magee, who has rushed for 1,834 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
Picayune’s quarterback, Ben Hickman, has passed for 1,115 yards and 13 scores.
“We’re a run-stop defense, but we’re also a good overall defense,” senior end Cory Cannon said.
Picayune’s defense is led by a 5-foot-6 tackling machine in linebacker Troy Egana. He has recorded 203 tackles and averages 14.5 per game.
Starkville offensive coordinator Preston Leathers says the coaches started thinking about a run for a state championship midway through the season.
“We thought, ‘We may not be a year away,”’ he said. “We looked at teams we played and thought we were as good as anybody.”
“This team just matured very quickly,” he added. “We’ve had some playmakers emerge that we didn’t know would.
“We thought they were good players, but you don’t know until you get under the lights and get into the battle.”
Now, he knows.