STARKVILLE — There”s something about a big stage that can rattle a young player at the moment when he or she needs to be focused most.
The Starkville High School boys basketball team has five sophomores that head coach Greg Carter hopes don”t get wide-eyed when the Yellow Jackets play Biloxi on Wednesday in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A semifinals of the state tournament at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.
Starkville began the season with questions of who would fill three vacancies in the starting lineup.
But the first game of the season saw sophomores Gavin Ware and Jacolby Mobley start at the post and point guard positions, respectively, with a bench that featured sophomores Mike Brand, Calvin Young and Tory Rice.
There wasn”t a question about how talented the group after a dominating freshman campaign, but how the sophomores would fit in and find ways to contribute at a championship level was unknown.
Twenty-nine games and a Class 6A North State championship later, the questions surrounding Starkville”s sophomores now revolve around how good the Yellow Jackets can be when the players are seniors.
Starkville (27-2), despite Mobley having to sit out half the season, has seen its sophoomores develop into reliable scorers and defenders in the span of four months.
“It”s what we hoped for,” Carter said of the sophomore progression. “You never know talking about the development of a player. Some guys get so good so soon and just don”t get any better. Sometimes it takes guys longer. But the way these guys have progressed, it”s definitely something we hoped for.”
The sophomores have played at a high enough level to carry the team through crunch time in the playoffs, evidenced by the team”s 84-67 North State semifinal win against Vicksburg. They stepped up when the Yellow Jackets” two stars, guard Edward Townsel and Rashad Perkins, sat out the entire second quarter with foul trouble.
In the wake of that, Vicksburg came out on fire and put the pressure on Starkville”s younger players to pick up the slack. Rice and Ware responded by scoring eight points each, while Rice hauled in eight rebounds in the win.
Starkville”s elder players knew from that point their younger teammates weren”t just contributors, but clutch players who”d make the stakes of the state tournament raise in their favor.
“Our young players don”t play like young players,” Perkins said. “They say you have to grow up quick and all of them have done that on the court. Under the circumstance that we had of being so young, they”ve grown up with every game. I”m confident in them in any game we play. Look how they stepped up against Vicksburg. That was an elimination game.”
The scenario is new for Carter. Of the five state tournament teams he”s had, he”s never had to rely on five sophomores as key players.
The unique, and at one-time, unsettled characteristic of this year”s team has presented new challenges and a not-so-typical path to Jackson. But as mild as Carter”s demeanor is during games he”s just as sanguine in describing the faith he has in his young players.
“It did worry me at the beginning of the year,” Carter said of playing so many sophomores. “Now, though, it”s not an issue wondering when guys are going to hit stride. We always put guys in with confidence that they can get the job done.”
Sophomores will play huge roles in Starkville”s bid to bring home its first state title of the Carter era. The players, who”ve been to the state tournament, admit Mississippi Coliseum can create nerves like no other venue.
“There”s nothing like it,” Perkins said. “My advice for the guys who”ve never been is not to get nervous and don”t get intimidated by the crowd.”
The edginess involved knowing what”s on the line can create the dilemma of “easier said than done,” which Ware, the most productive of the sophomores with 9.4 points per game and 8.2 rebounds, recognizes. He admits his excitement of making it to Jackson for his first state tournament experience has created nerves.
“The butterflies are there,” Ware said. “I think it”s a good opportunity to go down to Jackson. It”s a big honor to go down there with this team and it”s exciting. But, if we plan to go down there and win, which we do, then we need to go handle business. Everyone has to think like that.”
Carter has been faced with the paradox of emphasizing focus to his sophomores and hoping it doesn”t add more pressure by reminding them they are “Big House” first-timers. He”d like to think the performances he witnessed during the North State championship game are enough to ease the concerns of gunning for his first title with a team makeup he”s never had before.
But the numbers and facts are what they are, Carter said.
“They”re all excited about going, but like I said, it”s their first time,” Carter said. “Yesterday I talked to them about not being overanxious. Be anxious, but not over-anxious. Don”t rush anything. Once you get there, you”ve got to be able to play like you”ve been doing all year. But sometimes, when you get on that big stage and realize everyone”s watching, you start doing things that are not characteristic of you.”