STARKVILLE — Whatever it takes.
Sounds simple enough, right? After all, what team wouldn’t say it isn’t willing to do anything get a victory?
But the Starkville Academy football team isn’t just another team.
Houston Clark admits the Volunteers aren’t the biggest or the fastest team in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools. Even Starkville Academy first-year head coach Chase Nicholson acknowledges his team is held together by duct tape and anything else he can get his hands on.
That’s OK, though, because the Volunteers more than make up for what they lack with a desire to make this season special.
That resolve was put to the test Friday night, but Starkville Academy turned two second-half turnovers into touchdowns and bent but didn’t break in a 24-19 victory against Pillow Academy at J.E. Logan Field.
The victory was doubly sweet for the Class AAA Volunteers (8-1) because it came against the Class AAAA Mustangs (3-5) on a night the school honored members of its 1985 state championship football team. Three members of that squad — Michael Wolfe (Grant and William), Danny Miller (Will), and Robert Clark (Houston) — have sons on the 2015 team.
It’s no secret that Grant, William, Will, and Houston would love to join their fathers in the school’s championship history. But that desire burns a little hotter for Wolfe and Clark because they are seniors. They remember the sting of the 37-12 loss to Oak Forest (La.) last season in the Class AAA, Division II title game. The bitter taste from that loss has motivated the Volunteers for nearly a year. It adds a deeper dimension to the team’s mantra whatever it takes because Starkville Academy doesn’t want to fall one victory short again this season.
“We know we have a good team,” Clark said. “We’re a scrappy team. … All the seniors have to know they have to step up and lead and keep everybody’s heads up when we are down. Everybody is doing great.
“The ultimate goal is to get there and win it this year. Last year just fueled the fire. Everybody’s eyes are set on that game once we get there. Everybody is excited and trying to work as hard as they can and get back there and have a better outcome.”
Clark is an important figure in the Volunteers’ quest. As a sophomore, he moved into the role of starting quarterback and has remained there. Following a 24-0 victory against Pillow Academy on Nov. 8, 2013, Clark said the Volunteers dedicated that win to the seniors. He said, “They made a lot of sacrifices to help us become a better football program.” He went on to say after the victory that knocked Pillow Academy out of the playoffs that he was excited about the offseason and “working hard to make next year even more successful.”
Clark was true to his word. Following a 4-7 season that wasn’t good enough to make it to the playoffs, Starkville Academy defeated Jackson Academy for the first time as part of a memorable 2014 season. Included in Starkville Academy’s 11-2 finish was a 31-0 victory against Pillow Academy. That win was satisfying because it marked the second year in a row the Volunteers beat the Mustangs after losing five in a row to them from 2006-10.
When Nicholson took over for veteran coach Jeff Terrill in December 2014, he vowed he wasn’t going to lower the program’s standards. In fact, he said he was going to raise them. Part of his motivation came from having a strong senior class of 15 players that featured several key contributors. Nicholson said the senior have been instrumental this season in keeping the team focused.
“They have set the bar higher,” Nicholson said. “I have been here seven years now, and every year when we started with coach Terrill, the seniors that came in set the bar. The next group would come in and they would surpass that and set it higher and set it higher and set it higher. That is the trend you want because that is how you start a tradition and that is how you start and keep and build programs and keep them there. Coach Terrill set that bar high, and he passed on that knowledge.”
The Volunteers have bought into Nicholson’s approach thanks the wizened support of assistant coaches Bubba Davis and Tony Stanford. The longtime head coaches have played key roles with the Volunteers’ defense and offensive line. They also have balanced out the younger part of Starkville Academy’s coaching tree that includes defensive coordinator Brad Butler, a former coach at Heritage Academy, and Daniel Lott and Brooks Roberts. Together, the Volunteers have refused to become complacent.
Nicholson said the seniors have played integral roles in that mind-set by not allowing any slippage. He said the seniors sense or notice when the Volunteers are meeting their standard and react immediately to set things back on track.
Starkville Academy provided another example Friday night. Leading 10-7 at halftime, Starkville Academy recovered a fumble two plays into the third quarter. It took the Volunteers three plays to add to the lead thanks to a 47-yard run by Clark. He followed with a 1-yard touchdown run. Sam Cox’s extra point made it 17-7 with 11 minutes to go in the quarter.
Pillow Academy also fumbled on its next possession to give Starkville Academy the football at its 19-yard line. It didn’t matter that the Volunteers had to drive 81 yards. The navigated the long road by showcasing their versatility, as Clark hit Parker Guest with a 34-yard pass. He also had a 6-yard run to set up Colt Chrestman’s 48-yard touchdown run. Cox’s kick pushed the lead to 24-7.
From there, Starkville Academy weathered the storm and Pillow Academy’s running game. The Mustangs, who hurt themselves with penalties all night, had a key holding call on their final drive of the third quarter and had to settle for a 28-yard field goal.
Pillow Academy used a 13-play, 70-yard drive that ate up 6 minutes, 18 seconds to start the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 24-17. Starkville Academy went three and out on its next drive and faced the prospect of having to stop a Pillow Academy that was moving the football with confidence. But six plays into what could have been the game-winning drive, Pillow Academy fumbled again and lost its last best scoring chance.
Chrestman ran out of the end zone for a safety with 22 seconds remaining so the Volunteers didn’t have to risk a blocked punt deep in the territory in the final minute. Starkville Academy covered the punt well and then had to defend only two plays — the last a tackle by Hayes Henderson that kept the receiver inbounds — before time ran out.
“If you have playmakers on both sides of the ball and the want-factor with it, there is not much that can stop you if you put your mind to it, especially if you have the talent and the work ethic to go with it,” Starkville Academy senior linebacker Houston Massey said. “If you want it, you’re probably going to get it.”
Massey said the seniors and juniors “are pretty ticked” about the way the 2014 season ended. He said “it won’t feel right” unless the Volunteers get back to the state title game and take it home.
Afterward, Nicholson said the game was “so fun” and that he liked seeing a team with players in positions people don’t expect them to be in find a way to win another game.
“We talk about it all the time, and more this week because this week it is a non-conference game and it is Senior Night, that we have not won a game all season on talent,” Nicholson said. “Do we have talent? Sure. Do we have it across the board? No. We have guys who haven’t played in two or three years. We have guys who may not have played before. We are held together by duct tape and super glue because that is who we are. We are a rag-tag bunch. We are a rag-tag bunch of coaches — a rookie head coach and a defensive coordinator who I should write a book about because he has all of these crazy sayings. Coach Davis and the way he is. He says the same thing after every game. Coach Stanford is a big, loud many who is jolly and gruff. We are slapped together with duct tape and super glue. It is an interesting combination.”
Nicholson said it works because the coaches have fun and make sure the players have fun. They following that script with the idea the Volunteers will be alive deep into November and will have a chance to take the next step and win a title. He said the seniors came up with the slogan whatever it takes and that it is left open each week — with ellipses — because the Volunteers don’t know what it is going to take to win, or to get back to a Class AAA state title game.
You get the sense Nicholson wouldn’t want to know how his team is going to do it because he is enjoying the ride too much.
“Every week is different,” Nicholson said. “To me, that is the makings of what we believe is a championship team because each week they have to find another way and they keep persevering.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.