STARKVILLE – A new Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state champion will be crowned this season.
Starkville High made sure of that Friday night.
Behind a gutsy fourth-quarter scoring drive, Starkville knocked off two-time defending state champion West Point 20-14 in a hard-fought, bitterly contested second-round playoff game before a crowd of 5,000 at Starkville’s Yellow Jacket Field.
Starkville (11-2) will travel to Region 2 rival Ridgeland (9-3) on Friday night to play for the North State championship. In the regular season, Starkville won 26-23 at Ridgeland on Oct. 7.
West Point (8-5) will enter the offseason in November for the first time since 2008.
“It does not get much better than this,” Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. “What we have to do is get our guys to realize this is not Jackson and this was not the state championship. It is a big win, and we beat an awesome football team. However, there is plenty of work left to be done.”
In the first playoff game between the longtime rivals, both teams struggled to find consistency and made an atypical number of mistakes. The statistics were virtually even, except for one that swung heavily toward the hosts. West Point had two lost fumbles. Taylor Johnston and Dennis Ware had the two recoveries, which helped end the season for West Point and extend the season for Starkville.
“Our kids played hard the entire season,” West Point coach Chris Chambless said. “There is not another team in Mississippi I had rather be coaching. We struggled some this year, but the guys learned what playing West Point football is all about. We always gave the type of effort you have to give to be successful.
“Tonight, we gave the football away a couple of times. You can’t do that to win championship-type ballgames.”
The teams combined to go 5 of 25 through the air. Eighteen penalties were accepted. While it is easy to pinpoint myriad of plays, two sequences were key.
With the game tied at 14, the Yellow Jackets moved 51 yards on five plays for the go-ahead points. Starkville quarterback Gabe Myles hit back-to-back passes — one to Jimmy Saulsberry for 15 yards and the next to Eddie Brown for 27 yards. Those plays set Myles up for a 6-yard dash for the game-winner.
“We were disappointed we couldn’t get the passing game going quicker,” said Myles, who threw for only 64 yards but rushed 21 times for 130 yards. “However, we eventually found a way. Credit to the offensive line for the great holes out there tonight. If you can’t do it through your air, use your feet. We did that and we are moving on.”
West Point attempted to answer on its next drive. However, a holding penalty set the Green Wave up with a third-and-long. Starkville appeared to have the stop but a late pass interference call meant a new set of downs on the Starkville 30-yard line.
West Point quarterback DeQuinten Spraggins was incomplete on first and second downs. Emotions then took over with a personal foul penalty being called on West Point after the play. Facing third-and-25, Spraggins was again incomplete. On fourth down, Spraggins kept the ball on an option play, gaining 23 of the necessary 25 yards before the ball went over on downs at the Starkville 22-yard line.
“It was an incredible ballgame,” Mitchell said. “Defensively, our kids really rose up to the challenge. We held a tremendous offense to 14 points. There were so many big plays tonight. We had a bunch of players play like heroes.”
After four straight punts to start the game, Starkville finally broke through. The Jackets moved 46 yards on nine plays, with Myles going in from 2 yards. West Point answered on the next possession, moving 72 yards on six plays. Spraggins called his number for a 5-yard touchdown run.
Starkville’s Devontae Davis followed with a critical PAT block that left the score 7-6 Yellow Jackets at halftime.
The second half saw a flurry of activity in the third quarter. Starkville moved 78 yards on 11 plays on its first possession. Devin Mitchell capped the drive with a 5-yard touchdown rush. West Point answered when Tez Lane finished a 74-yard, 11-play drive with a 3-yard run.
Spraggins kept on the game-tying two-point conversion with 11 minutes, 12 seconds left in regulation.
“We knew we then had to make a play,” Myles said. “Our season was riding on us having an answer. Thank goodness, we did.”
West Point had 13 first downs and 256 yards. Starkville had 16 first downs and 247 yards.
Lane ran nine times for 61 yards, while Aeris Williams had six rushes for 65 yards. Spraggins completed 1 of 10 passes for 16 yards. He had 17 carries for 74 yards.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.