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Walters column: Starkville poised for big 2018

 

Junior running back Rodrigues Clark (3) ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Yellow Jackets.

Junior running back Rodrigues Clark (3) ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Yellow Jackets. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch

 

Scott Walters

 

 

For Starkville High School, it happened so quickly. 

 

After missing the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A playoffs in 2016, the Yellow Jackets busted the door wide open this season. 

 

The magic run ended with a 21-17 loss to Pearl in the state championship game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. 

 

There was little doubt Chris Jones was primed to return Starkville to the upper echelon in the state. The real question was "How quickly?" 

 

We got the answer Friday night when a valiant effort from the Yellow Jackets fell short in the final minute. 

 

Jones did not inherit a well-oiled machine. Even though Starkville had won the state championship as recently as 2015, the following year was not kind. 

 

There was player dissension, injuries and a front-loaded region schedule. In the past when adversity hit, Starkville would bow its neck. Instead, that team folded. 

 

After leading Kemper County to the Class 3A state championship in 2016, Jones was brought to Starkville to bring back those winning ways. 

 

No coach in MHSAA history had won back-to-back titles at two different schools. Jones sure did come close. 

 

This season, Starkville flew under the radar. The Yellow Jackets were not in the preseason rankings. Pearl, Tupelo, Madison Central and South Panola were all considered safer bets to win Class 6A. 

 

Starkville thrived in that position. The Yellow Jackets thumped Noxubee County in the season opener and heads began to turn. 

 

We then waited for adversity. Starkville found it in the form of a one-sided loss to eventual Class 5A state champion West Point. 

 

Instead of crumbling, Starkville made sure the loss made them better. 

 

The offense took flight and the defense became one of the state's best. 

 

Just when it looked like a dominant run through the rest of regular season, the team was shut out at Warren Central. 

 

Again, would the team back down or bow its neck and fight like never before? 

 

We saw the answer. Starkville then beat Clinton, Southaven, Horn Lake and Madison Central. 

 

Suddenly, Starkville was back in the state championship, perhaps a year ahead of schedule. 

 

There was little doubt that people have been pointing at 2018 and 2019 as banner seasons for the Yellow Jackets. 

 

The team figures to have more than a dozen signees during that two-year span. 

 

Pearl was playing for its first state championship. While Starkville has been a regular, there were a lot of new faces in the lineup Friday night. 

 

What unfolded was a tremendous football game. 

 

Starkville failed to cover passes in the flats on a consistent basis. There was also a major tackling problem on a couple of deep runs. 

 

At the same time, the defense hung in there and gave the squad a chance. 

 

Zach Edwards had 13 tackles, including 4.5 for loss. He has a chance to be one of the best defensive players in the state next year. 

 

On offense, Rodrigues Clark ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with three straight games with 100 rushing yards in the first half alone. 

 

Clark has said he plans to be the best running back in the state next season. Friday shows that he has that potential. 

 

Jones used two quarterbacks this season -- junior Malik Brown and freshman Luke Altmyer. 

 

Starkville will be in great shape there. The guess here is Altmyer will become the full-time starter next season and Brown will use his raw athleticism in other areas to help the offense. 

 

When the season ended, Starkville was still alive. Tupelo, South Panola, Madison Central and Warren Central were not. 

 

There is a lot to be said for that. 

 

With one more bounce, one more tackle or one more minute to play, Starkville could have left Oxford with its third state championship in five seasons. 

 

Instead, there were tears. The heartbreak was real. They were that close. 

 

As the hour pass and the winter turns colder, that warm feeling will return. 

 

Starkville knows 2018 can be its year. 

 

Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at swalters@cdispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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