November 12, 2017 12:50:17 AM
STARKVILLE -- Walker Tranum will go down in Starkville Academy football history.
Chase Nicholson should reserve a place for a picture of Tranum on the walls in the hallway that lead to the Volunteers' locker room. As easy as it would be for Nicholson to pick any of the other defensive players who saw action Friday night, Tranum's 91-yard fumble return for a touchdown was the defining and most memorable moment in a second-seeded Starkville Academy's 31-0 victory against third-seeded Adams County Christian Academy in the semifinals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA playoffs at J.E. Logan Field.
"I just picked it up and took off running and saw open field," said Tranum, a junior offensive/defensive lineman. "I gave it everything I had. When I got to the 10(-yard line), I was struggling, but I got there."
Starkville Academy (12-1) will take on top-seeded Indianola Academy (13-0) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Jackson Academy for the state title.
Reigning Class AAA champion Indianola Academy beat fifth-seeded Columbia Academy 43-16 Friday night to set the rematch. Indianola Academy beat Starkville Academy 35-21 on Sept. 1 in Indianola.
The victory was the 10th in a row for the Volunteers, and their third-straight shutout. This is the first time dating back through the 1994 season Starkville Academy has had three-straight shutouts. Starkville Academy has six shutouts on the season and has allowed only 124 points.
According to MaxPreps.com, the last time ACCS (11-2) was shut out was a 40-0 loss to Simpson Academy on Oct. 7, 2011.
Starkville Academy's dominance on defense mirrors that of past teams that have played in state title games. In 2014, Starkville Academy had back-to-back shutouts and shutouts in three of its final six games. That season ended with a 37-12 loss to Oak Forest (La.) in the MAIS Class AAA, Division II championship game.
Starkville Academy also had back-to-back shutouts in 2012 (Leake and Hillcrest) and 2005 (Winston and Washington). Starkville Academy beat Heritage Academy in 2005 for the MAIS Class AAA, Division II state title.
Nicholson praised coach Brad Butler and coach Bubba Davis for a game plan that limited ACCS to -2 yards on 25 carries. The negative yardage total was the result of six sacks on a night the Volunteers proved more than capable to containing the speedy Rebels.
"They watch so much film and they're constantly working," Nicholson said of Butler and Davis. "I know they work harder than I do as far as film watching goes because they watch all of the time. They spend hours and hours and hours watching film. I'd go crazy doing what they do.
"It shows the work they put in. They can relay the information to the guys so easily and they understand what they want to do. They just do such a great job coaching. They're two great coaches."
Great defenses capitalize on mistakes, which is what Starkville Academy did with a 14-0 lead. ACCS appeared primed to cut the deficit in half with a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. But the snap went through the quarterback's hands and settled on the turf near the 10. Several Starkville Academy players over-pursued the football, which left Tranum to pick it up and begin a 91-yard sprint to the end zone. A convoy of Volunteers surrounded him, even if Tranum said after the game he didn't know they were there.
Tranum said he thought there was an ACCS player close to him the whole time. He said he knew he wouldn't have been able to live it down if he had gotten caught from behind.
"We are playing the best defense we have played," Tranum said. "To be in the playoffs, that is huge. Hopefully, it will carry over to Saturday."
Butler said a defensive score is one of the 17 defensive goals the Volunteers try to attain every week. He said Starkville Academy scored on defense three-straight weeks earlier in the season and then hit a "lull." He said the Volunteers played well on defense despite not getting a turnover last week in a 30-0 victory against Central Hinds Academy. Butler said the 14-point swing on the turnover and score provided a huge shift of momentum.
Butler didn't call the fumble, but he sounded like he knew what was coming when he told his players they had to forget big plays against them because the Volunteers easily could pick up a fumble and return it 99 yards if they were mentally prepared to do their job on the next snap.
"Everybody kind of looked at me when Walker did that," Butler said. "I'm not a psychic, but if you play hard good things will happen to you."
Butler joked he wished someone with a little more speed recovered the fumble. He wasn't sure if Tranum was going to make it, but he knew it would be hard for the Rebels to bring him down if they had a shot.
Nicholson, who called Tranum his "punt team All-American," agreed.
"He is a really smart kid who is really fast," Nicholson said. "He has a good top end. I was trying to figure out who was going to pick it up. When I saw him pick it up, there wasn't going to be anybody who was going to be able to stop him. Even if somebody did try to catch him, they were going to have to tackle him, and that was going to be pretty tough because you don't want to try to tackle that guy."
The touchdown was Tranum's first defensive score of his career. He said the Volunteers could sense the Rebels weren't comfortable all evening on offense. After a season in which senior teammate Kyle Faver has been talking about Nov. 18 all year, Tranum said it is sweet to know the Volunteers will get a chance to realize their dream.
"We could tell they hadn't been hit as hard as we were hitting them," Tranum said. "All of their games they were scoring 40-something points. To shut them out like that, that was huge. They weren't expecting that at all.
"Coach Butler has made all of the calls, and we're just flying higher than ever because we know what we want to do. We want to win a championship."
Faver echoed that sentiment when he called the victory "the greatest feeling ever." He said he couldn't be prouder of the Volunteers for coming together in the preseason and sticking together to get a chance to play for a championship.
"We played a heck of a game," Faver said. "We tackled the best we have tackled all year. We flew around and played the hardest we have played all year, and we shut down a really good team that has been putting up a lot of points all year. I couldn't be happier for our defense and the rest of the team because we played an amazing game."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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