For a few years now, there’s one trip that MACJC North Division coaches have come to dread: Heading south.
Tonight, Jeff Terrill and Ricky Smither will both make that trip.
Terrill, Itawamba Community College’s 8th-year head coach, will lead his Indians into Perkinston to face two-time defending state champion Gulf Coast while Smither’s Northeast squad will visit Poplarville to take on 11th-ranked Pearl River, which won four straight titles from 2003 to 2006.
For a pair of teams that started out with drastically different season openers, tonight’s trip could provide an early litmus test against the state’s best.
Over the past several seasons, the South Division has asserted itself as the stronger league within the ranks of state junior college football, claiming the last six state championships and holding a head-to-head lead over north division counterparts in each of the last six seasons.
Last week, though, could have signaled a shift in the state’s balance of power.
ICC and Northwest both pulled off significant upsets to open the season, with the Indians claiming a 21-7 win over Jones County and the Rangers shocking No. 2 Gulf Coast at home. In Booneville, Smither’s Tigers came within an eyelash of earning their first on-field win since 2007, dropping a 16-7 overtime decision to Hinds.
For Smither, tonight’s date against a powerful Pearl River squad is the perfect test to judge just how far these Tigers have come.
“First of all we had a great week of practice, I thought it was going to be tough…. as far as getting the kids up and ready to play again this week after the tough loss at home, but these guys got a mentality that is unbelievable,” said Smither. “This team really loves the game and they have been getting after each other all week. We got some guys that experienced their first loss ever and they want to do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen again. With that said…we realize that Pearl River is a very great team, well coached, and got some great athletes so our work is going to be cut out for us no doubt.”
The Tigers, who outpaced Hinds in every statistical measure other than the scoreboard, look to be a much-improved team from a year ago. The Tigers limited the Eagles to just 183 yards in total offense, second only to Pearl River’s 177-yard showing in a 45-7 win over Holmes.
“It was a heartbreaking loss to Hinds, we had a several opportunities to seal the deal but we just came up short in the end,” Smither said. “Our young guys played well and the sophomores stepped up their game as well and I was very proud of the way our guys played.”
Kickoff for tonight is set for 6:30.
Angry bunch of Bulldogs
For his part, Terrill knew all along that tonight’s trip to Perkinston would be one of his team’s toughest tests of the season.
He didn’t count on facing a team looking to bounce back after a loss.
“That’s why they play the game, for sure,” Terrill said of Gulf Coast’s suprising loss to Northwest. “We knew this team was going to be hard to beat coming in and that’s no different now. I don’t necessarily like having to play them when they’re coming off a loss, but as long as we continue to work hard and play like we should, we’ll be fine.”
The Indians were more than fine in their own upset last week, exhibiting offensive firepower that was missing last season. Freshman QB Bret Jefcoat passed for 200 yards and two scores in the first quarter alone, and wideout DeMarcus Watts caught two touchdown passes in ICC’s offensive display against Jones.
On the other side, the ICC defense allowed Jones County to reach the red zone just twice and allowed just one touchdown.
That kind of defensive intensity could be key tonight as the Indians look to slow down a Bulldog attack that averaged well over 300 yards per game last season.
“They are always loaded offensively,” Terrill said of the No. 2 Bulldogs. “We know how tough it can be to slow them down.
“Our defense has come along pretty good so far, so we’ll see what happens.”
Brandon Walker/NEMS Daily Journal