September 12, 2018 10:59:33 AM
Friday night won't go down as the highlight of Eric Rice's football career.
Rice, who is in his first year as head coach at Columbus High School, played on three successful teams at Ole Miss. Success then followed at other stops in his coaching career.
That is why Rice was visibly shaken minutes after his team dropped a 72-6 decision to Starkville on Friday night at Columbus.
Starkville, the state's top-ranked team, played a flawless game and likely won't reach that level of execution again.
For Columbus, the focus must be on the present. Columbus has eight games remaining in the regular season. No one on that schedule will look like Starkville.
So as we hit the fifth week of the season, Columbus is still looking for its first victory under Rice. It could come Friday in a trip to Vicksburg. After that three-and-a-half-hour bus ride ends, Columbus will find a winless opponent.
After the loss to Starkville, players and coaches were eager to talk about Vicksburg. Granted, the discussion points were set up by a reporter who wasn't sure what to ask after a 72-6 game.
When Columbus lost its season opener to West Point, senior Quin Malone said some of the Falcons were "nervous" and "not prepared." After the loss to Starkville, senior Titus Kirk said the Falcons were "hesitant."
It is has all led up to three losses to start the season (West Point, Noxubee County, and Starkville) by a combined score of 162-24.
The Falcons have lost 12 of their last 14 games after Kylin Hill, who is now the starting running back at Mississippi State, suited up for the final time for the team.
A year ago, Columbus finished 2-9. The Falcons lost their first games, won back-to-back games, and then lost six-straight games. The team played hard but couldn't overcome a strong schedule on the front end and injuries on the back end.
That Columbus team started the season with a goal of making a third-straight playoff appearance after Hill had helped lead the program to the postseason in back-to-back years.
In the offseason, Randal Montgomery left to join the coaching staff of M.C. Miller at Louisville High and Rice was charged with bringing the team back.
The Falcons have never been a Class 6A State title contender. However, Tony Stanford had two seven-win teams and Montgomery won eight games and six games in two of his four seasons.
Rice has talked about a long-range plan that includes building the junior high program from the ground up. That also includes getting the numbers up on the varsity level.
When fall camp broke, Rice listed 54 players on his roster. That number is now pushing 60. However, he feels like 80 or so players need to dress for the program to have proper depth.
After facing Columbus, a fellow coach said the team was disciplined, organized, and in the right spots at the right time. That is encouraging. However, it is of little comfort when the final margins are this out of hand.
With that being said, Columbus still has a lot to play for.
After the road trip to Vicksburg, Columbus will have seven Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 1 games. With the exception of No. 2 Horn Lake, it appears the other six regional games will find the Falcons on equal or close to equal footing from a talent standpoint.
Even traditional powers Tupelo and South Panola have struggled through the first four weeks of the season.
Rice is worried about the psychological makeup of his team. Friday night was more fun for Starkville. However, it wasn't that much fun for anybody.
The players have said Rice has told them not to get caught up in the scoreboard the first three weeks. Instead, they said he has asked them to focus on getting better and the seven region games. Let the outcome of the game take care of itself.
That means do your best but don't get discouraged if a highly touted opponent with better athletes wins the game.
That's a different terrain from when Hill was running for his 4,000 career yards. Back then, Columbus entered every game thinking it had a chance.
Rice feels like one good thing can change the season. It could come Friday night. Here's hoping it does for the Falcons' mental makeup.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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