Tonight will mark a homecoming for Jamie Mitchell.
Mitchell, the head football coach at Itawamba AHS, will return to the school where he held his first head coaching job. The fourth-year Indians coach had not been to Ripley High for a football game in 10 years.
“I still have a lot of old friends there,” Mitchell said this week. “I haven’t played at Ripley since I left there.”
So with that being said, tonight the Daily Journal’s third-ranked large school, IAHS, will play at the Journal’s third-ranked Class 3A team, Ripley.
Itawamba (3-0) is coming off a big win over then No. 3-ranked Lafayette County last Friday, while Ripley (1-2) is coming off a tough 21-7 loss to Pontotoc, a division opponent of the 4A Indians.
In fact, both of the Tigers’ losses this season come against Division 1-4A teams; Ripley lost its season opener to New Albany.
So why is Class 3A Ripley playing three Division 1-4A teams?
“We were trying to play schools more our size,” said Ripley head coach Mac McCurry. “Whatever success we’ve had through the years, the other schools believed it was going to continue this year.
“We were turned down by 38 schools in Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama.”
Playing those larger schools, such as Pontotoc, has gotten the Tigers “beat and beaten up,” as Ripley statistician Jim Pannell pointed out while discussing the Pontotoc loss.
McCurry said his team lost three starters due to injuries from the Pontotoc game. Running back Tony Hernandez (ankle) is out for the season, while wide receiver/defensive back Austin Hamilton (lateral collateral ligament in knee) is out for a month and running back Rashid March (back) is awaiting results on a MRI.
With a fourth starter, linebacker Bentley Mauney, out for the entire 2009 season, the rest of the season could be considered a “big challenge” for Ripley.
“Itawamba’s definitely going to be our biggest challenge of the year,” McCurry said. “Right now, we’re having a challenge every Friday night.
“We’ve got four people who’ve been starters at the beginning of the season out with injuries right now. Every Friday night at this point is a challenge.”
A challenge for the Indians will be to improve their running game, which Mitchell thought wasn’t where it needed to be last Friday night.
“We would love to rush the football more,” he said. “We certainly need to get to where we can rush the football a little better.
“We need to be able to rush the football.”
But Mitchell and his staff won’t be so gung-ho about running the ball if the running game isn’t working. The coach said they would throw the ball and do whatever necessary to put points on the board.
The key for the Tigers offensively will be to hold onto the football.
“We’ve had our share of turnovers because of our inexperience,” McCurry said. “We feel like we’ve played some fairly physical ball up front, but the perimeter is where we’re having some problems just because of our youth and inexperience.”
One of those underclassmen for Ripley that has been doing well despite the team’s struggles is sophomore quarterback Acie Vance.
“He’s done well under the circumstances,” McCurry said.
Meanwhile, Itawamba quarterback Maikhail Miller is doing a stellar job behind center and is proving that he is a big-time recruit, says his coach.
The junior quarterback has thrown for 587 yards and five touchdowns, and has been picked off once in three games this season.
“He can throw a football 75 yards,” Mitchell said. “I’ve seen him do it on a regular basis.
“He literally can throw it 75 yards. He’s just a quality, quality high school quarterback. He’s a big-time recruit – not any question.”
John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal