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Starkville falls in heart-breaking fashion to Pearl for Class 6A title


Starkville sophomore Kasen Woodard (65) consoles senior wide receiver Cameron Gardner (12) after Friday night’s loss in the state championship game.

Starkville sophomore Kasen Woodard (65) consoles senior wide receiver Cameron Gardner (12) after Friday night’s loss in the state championship game. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch


Brett Hudson



OXFORD --It was fitting that, on a fourth-and-1 in what could have been the game-winning drive, Starkville High School handed it off to Dreke Clark. To that point, he had taken Starkville 172 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, so giving him carry No. 29 to keep the game alive made sense. 


When he met Pearl linebacker Sam Brumfield in the seam, it was clear Clark was short. The Pearl celebration had already progressed past the point of no return and Clark's teammates walked to the sideline with their dejection impossible to miss. 


Still, Jones, Starkville's football coach, called them together. He was getting them ready for the next play call, as if the drive would still be alive. He would not be deterred. 


Why abandon the relentless pursuit of a championship in the final moment? 


The moment was indicative of the Yellow Jacket season and the final game of it: a run at a state championship with nothing held back. It did just that Friday night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but ultimately came four points short of its Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A championship in a 21-17 loss to Pearl. 


The final chapter of the story showed Starkville holding nothing back. 


Early on, it was clear Clark was in for a big night: at halftime, he had 125 yards and two touchdowns, both scores in the second quarter to give Starkville an early lead. That being the case, Starkville didn't hide its intentions. It used Clark in the Wildcat at times, including on a fourth down conversion early in the second quarter and again on one of his touchdowns runs. 


"He's been awesome all year and I didn't expect nothing less," Jones said. "I thought he played great." 


When it wasn't Clark catching snaps, Starkville used a two-quarterback system for the first time this season. Season-long starter Malik Brown was alternating possessions with freshman Luke Altmeyer for most of the game until the fourth quarter, when Jones decided to put the game in Brown's hands. 


"Malik had been kind of banged up, honestly, so he didn't practice a whole bunch and we felt like Luke did some things better over the course of the week," Jones said. "It was all about giving us the best chance to win and I felt like doing that gave us our best chance. 


"He got us here. I felt like we were going to win or lose with the one that got us here. I felt like he did a good job all season." 


The defense followed suit with a wildly aggressive game plan that produced 10 tackles for a loss, seven of them sacks. Defensive end Jalil Clemons and linebacker Zach Edwards had 2.5 sacks each. The byproduct was a first half with only five Pearl first downs and 98 yards. 


"They were back there a lot, weren't they? I don't know what was going on with that. They were having a party back there at our expense," Pearl coach John Perry said. "We made a couple of adjustments: we knew we could throw the ball out on the flats, we had numbers on them and our kids are tough and can block them. We had to quit trying to throw it down the field so much and throw it in the flat." 


Even with that newfound formula, punching in the winning scores was no easy task for Pearl. The Pirates had a chance in the third quarter, driving all the way to the 29-yard line, before a Clemson sack on fourth down ended that. Pearl's first go-ahead drive of the fourth quarter took 10 plays and required two third-down conversions; after a 34-yard field Garin Boniol field goal put Starkville back on top, Pearl had to convert a fourth-and-2 in its touchdown drive that won the game. 


All of that is good reason for what happened as the trophy Starkville coveted was about to be presented. Pearl linebacker Willie Brown walked up to Clark and crouched down to him, bringing him upright as he spoke to him. Knight did the same after Brown brought him up. 


Clark said, 'They said, 'You're going to make it somewhere.'" 


Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson



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