STARKVILLE — Change is something Starkville Academy athletics became used to in 2009-10.
Win-loss records, experience, head coaches, confidence, spirit — all were affected greatly by a down year in boys athletics. The football and basketball programs managed one win between both seasons. At a school where the majority of athletes compete in multiple sports, going through the first six to seven months of the school year without a win sent confidence into a nosedive.
In the span of three months, the school”s baseball team had three coaches. By the end of the school year, softball, football, boys basketball, girls and boys soccer, and golf all had new head coaches named.
For an athletic department aiming to compete with the upper crust of Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, consistency and continuity will needed to move forward.
In Starkville Academy Athletics Director Glenn Schmidt”s mind, it all starts with repairing the football program. And it”s not for the obvious reason.
Football, at any school, is the bell cow for earning money that strengthens multiple programs, but Schmidt, having seen the effects of a struggling football program, believes the energy created from a solid football season is just as beneficial as monies raised.
“Although your gates do go up and down with your success, you basically got a core group of people that are going to support you,” Schmidt said. “They”re going to come whether you win or lose. But if you start the season off, and I”m not going to say winning every game, but with a lot of energy and competing with a lot of excitement, the school year is going to follow.
“We”ve had some good school years in spite of it, but football players, the band, the cheerleaders, and the dancers are front and center at the beginning of the school year. You got your soccer and your softball going on, but (football) is the big event.”
Football now has its fifth head coach in Schmidt”s seven years in charge of SA athletics. Schmidt admits the turnover has affected the team”s consistency, but she is confident new coach Jeff Terrill is in Starkville for the long haul. The same goes for basketball hire Chris Lyle, a Mississippi State graduate, who was looking to return to Starkville after coaching at Harrison Central. She believes baseball coach Neal Henry, who had the interim tag removed near the end of the season, isn”t looking to use Starkville Academy as a stepping stone to another job.
“I think they were interested in somebody to come in and make that long-term commitment,” Terrill said. “They saw in me I was retiring from a league. I”m of the age where all I care about is improving the overall football program at SA. I”m here for SA, I”m not interested in anything else.”
To rebuild the football program, changes were made to the junior high infrastructure and the fifth- and sixth-grade programs. Fifth- and sixth-graders started teams two years ago and an eighth-grade game was added to the weekly junior high/ninth-grade slate to get kids more playing time.
With Terrill”s arrival this spring, coaching staff assignments were simplified to give each coach just one role. Junior high coaches don”t have assistant duties with the varsity team, and vice versa.
Terrill”s excitement about having 47 participants in the Starkville Academy”s fifth-and sixth-grade football camp that ended Thursday might seem premature, but with 30 players on his varsity spring roster the veteran coach must establish a base to see his last coaching stop become his final success story.
Landing Terrill was a coup for Schmidt, who had the unenviable task of replacing multiple coaches for various reasons. In softball and baseball, Schmidt knocked out the hiring of Jessica Dickens and Henry through promotion. Both share assistant roles with basketball and football, respectively. And both, along with Lyle, will enter next season as first-year head coaches.
Concerns about coaching experience are nil, according to Schmidt, who believes in hiring young if the potential and credentials fit what the program needs. She recalls becoming Starkville High”s basketball coach when she was 24, just one year removed from spending her first year as an assistant to the late Sam Parker.
“Sitting here 33 years later, I”ve never forgotten that,” Schmidt said. “You can”t hire youngsters if you don”t believe that one day they can become a head coach. Jessica Dickens is going to be a phenomenal head softball coach, and one day, a great head basketball coach. No question. She had the job offers this year, and we”re fortunate she stayed.”
One man in the middle of the coaching changes is Kyle Morgan, who served with Dickens on Randy Haynes” softball staff and newly hired Hillcrest Christian principal Clay Stringer”s basketball staff. Schmidt said she feels better knowing Morgan is in place to assist a pair of first-year coaches.
Morgan is happy to be a link of stability through the transitions.
“The continuity is a big factor,” he said. “I”ve known a lot of these kids since they were young. Having someone they know and some they”re used to makes a difference. We”ve got a rebuilding project in softball just like we do in basketball, but Jessica is a talented coach and she”s going to push them. Chris has had two practices already and I know he”ll do a great job.
“I”m just happy to be here and help out in any way I can.”
While the “big three” sports struggled this season, not all was down at SA. Will Goodwin brought home a state triple jump title and Joseph MacGown won the 3,200 meters at the state meet, while Korn Simsiriwong was a medalist at the Class AAA state tournament. Boys and girls soccer each made playoff appearances, while softball and girls basketball enjoyed winning seasons. Schmidt said the school is trying to find a new swim coach who can help it build the program.
There”s growth, but more important, proof Starkville Academy can compete in AAA sports. Just five years removed from its last football state title, there”s a growing concern about whether Starkville Academy should drop to AA to better compete for state honors.
Schmidt hears the questions about Starkville Academy”s classification, though the school”s enrollment ranks in the middle of the 14 AAA schools.
“There”s a lot of controversy about how we shouldn”t be playing in the big league without this or without that,” Schmidt said. “It isn”t derogatory; people want to see their kids win. But we”re here and we”ve got to compete.”
Doubt and wavering confidence against the big schools trickles down to the players, and it”s a mind-set every coach on campus sets out to correct. Some combat it through encouragement. Others, like Schmidt, don”t mention it because they feel it”s irrelevant once the game starts.
“I”m not going to single out programs, but we (girls basketball), year in and year out, we”re able to beat JA, Prep, and MRA,” Schmidt said. “The year before, we beat Prep twice and we beat JA twice. We beat MRA this year. I don”t want to coach a group of kids who go out and think, ”We can”t beat these people.” That”s part of our problem. It”s a mental thing and it”s real.
“Whether it”s the five on the field or the 11, you”ve just got to be better than those five or 11. Not the whole school. It”s a challenge we all face as coaches.”
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