Starkville Academy coach Chase Nicholson, center, listens as assistant coach Tony Stanford, left, talks to him during a break in the action earlier this season. Nicholson and the Volunteers will look for an important victory against rival Heritage Academy on Friday night in Columbus. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch
October 12, 2017 10:11:55 AM
This one has been circled on the calendar since February.
The Starkville Academy and Heritage Academy football teams have recognized the importance of Friday, Oct. 13, for a long time. But neither squad has allowed the potential ramifications of that date to distract it from its business, which is why both teams enter their Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA, District 2 game at 7 p.m. Friday at C.L. Mitchell Field with a chance to win a district title.
At 7-1 and 2-0 in the district, the winner of the game Friday night will clinch the district championship with one game remaining in the regular season. A victory would give the winner the head-to-head advantage with Heritage Academy having a game left against Canton Academy, while Starkville Academy will wrap up district play against Leake Academy.
The winner of Friday's game will secure an automatic spot in the Class AAA playoffs and a likely No. 2 seed. The loser also is a virtual lock to make the playoffs. A win in the regular-season finale likely would secure a No. 6 seed in the playoffs based on the fact both teams have impressive victories against MAIS Class AAAA opponents.
Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison hopes playing at home and his team's ability to stay in its routine will be an advantage against an opponent he knows will present challenges.
"They don't make mistakes," Harrison said. "Fundamentally, they are the best team we have played. defensively, they have allowed 10 points in four games for a reason. They get to the football. Their inside backers are really good. They are just a solid team. No one player really stands out because all 11 of them are doing something really good every snap. Finding holes is difficult, but I think we have a good plan and I am looking forward to executing it."
Heritage Academy had Monday and Tuesday off due to fall break, but Harrison said the Patriots started the week with two strong practices. Starkville Academy had its fall break last week, so the Volunteers were able to stay in their game-week routine.
Harrison senses even more excitement and anticipation for a game that typically means a lot between the longtime rivals. A big crowd is expected to see if an experienced Starkville Academy team, which might have a little more depth, can knock off a younger Heritage Academy team that won the district title last season. Harrison said the students have put together a tailgate on the practice field, so he believes there will be a lot of energy for what could be the first of two meetings. Playoff seedings and results could pair the teams against each other and other District 2 rivals in the Class AAA playoffs. That isn't an appealing thought for Harrison. Still, he said the Patriots aren't going to get ahead of themselves.
"Have we prepared differently? No," Harrison said. "Have we prepared maybe a little bit more? Yes. It is a big one."
Harrison said the Patriots don't need to focus on any specifics to get the victory. He said the goal is to get better from last week. If the Patriots can do that, Harrison likes their chances.
"I have told my guys all week there is no pressure," Harrison said. "They need to go out and do their job, and do it better than they did last week. If they do that we will be just fine.
"We have kept the message all year that this week is the most important game of the year, just like last week, just like next week. That is the message we have kept this week. I think they have really bought into that idea."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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