JACKSON — Dodd Lee admits expectations weren’t particularly high for the Picayune High School football team prior to the start of the 2011 season.
That doesn’t mean the veteran coach didn’t think the Maroon Tide couldn’t put something together. But coaches are a notoriously cautious bunch, and Lee knew replacing 17 starters from the 2010 squad would be something that couldn’t be done with a snap of the finger.
Four months later, Lee and Picayune have survived the gauntlet and will take the field at 7 p.m. Saturday against Starkville to decide the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state champion.
Picayune is in the state title game for the first time since it defeated Clarksdale in 1986 for the championship.
“We didn’t really have a running back and we got Dereonte (Magee) to come in there out of the secondary and play for us,” said Lee, explaining at least one source of concern before the season. “He weighs about 165 pounds and we have given it to him about 300 times. I was hoping he could make it to 150 without going down, but he has held it together and he has been tough.”
Lee said it was imperative for the coaches to impress on the players that they needed to work hard. If they did, he said, everyone believed good things would follow. Victories against Petal and Gulfport to start the season set the tone and helped confidence grow that a Maroon Tide could wash up in Jackson.
“Our expectations were just to make it to the next day and try to get a little better,” Lee said. “We got off to a good start with two big road wins against Petal and Gulfport that gave us a little bit of confidence. I think they took it and ran with it and kept getting a little better and a little better and turned into a pretty good football team.”
Magee has carried more than his share of the load. He rushed for 141 yards on 17 carries last week in a 45-10 victory against Pearl River Central in the South State title game. He enters the game against the Yellow Jackets with more than 1,800 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
Lee said his team has regrouped from a injury-plagued 2010 season that resulted in a first-round playoff loss. He said work ethic has been a key.
“I have never had a team work as hard as this,” Lee said, “and I have always had teams hard-working teams. You could sense (in the offseason) that the work ethic was as good as it has ever been.”
Lee admits Picayune, the Region 4 champion, doesn’t have a plethora of Dandy Dozen prospects, but he has been more than satisfied by his team’s focus, concentration, and its maturity. He called his players “mature competitors” Monday when discussing his team’s chances against Starkville. He said the Maroon Tide have done a good job of re-focusing their goals at several points during the season, including after a loss to Ocean Springs, and are ready to take their final test.
“They’re just going to see a bunch of good kids, average-looking kids playing with a lot of heart and having a lot of fun,” Lee said. “Our defense has probably played as well as it has played in the last five or six years. Offensively, they have carried the defense some nights, too.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.