MERIDIAN — Chase Nicholson repeated the phrase three times, as if he couldn’t believe it.
“That’s Game 1,” Nicholson said. “Game 1. Game 1.”
It was easy to forgive the Starkville Academy football coach if he found it hard to wrap his head around the Volunteers’ 24-22 victory Friday night at Lamar School.
The Vols (1-0) beat the Raiders (0-1) in a game that featured pretty much everything — big plays and costly mistakes, momentum swings galore and a last-ditch comeback effort.
And it all came before the official Week 1 of the 2022 MAIS season.
“I told them right there at the end, we got to experience a lot of football in this game,” Nicholson said.
Starkville Academy almost got to experience more than it expected. Only a few inches separated the Vols from overtime in their Week 0 contest in Meridian.
But Lamar senior Austin Acton’s left foot came down on the sideline of the end zone on a tying two-point conversion attempt with 9.5 seconds to play. Starkville Academy recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock for a big road win.
The Vols started off a season 1-0 for the first time since 2018, when they beat the same Raiders 21-20 on the road. The next two seasons also featured opening games against Lamar, but they didn’t go as well.
SA fell 34-13 to Lamar in 2019 in Starkville before a painful 33-30 defeat in 2020 at Grey Cobb Field in Meridian.
The Volunteers haven’t forgotten that one.
“Two years ago, we lost up here in overtime, so I am very thankful that the team just did what they needed to do and we came through in the end,” senior running back Charlie Nicholas said.
Nicholas was a key part of that, scoring a critical fourth-quarter touchdown to put the Volunteers up by eight. His 5-yard touchdown run with 5:37 to play followed a fourth-and-4 play from the Lamar 44 in which Nicholas surged across the first-down marker.
“That was big right there,” a Volunteer teammate on the sideline noted after the conversion.
Nicholas’ score appeared to seal the contest, but Lamar made a last gasp. A bad snap on an SA punt set up the Raiders at the Vols’ 19-yard line, well within striking distance.
Starkville Academy appeared to make a fourth-down stop at the 12, but a penalty made it fourth-and-goal from the 6. Lamar quarterback Wyatt Bond found Acton in the front right corner of the end zone for a late touchdown to cut the lead to two.
The Raiders went right back to the play on the two-point try, but Bond’s throw was slightly late, and Acton couldn’t bring it down in bounds. Starkville Academy had survived.
“There was nothing easy about this game,” Nicholson said. “There was nothing smooth about this game. There was nothing about this that you go home and say, ‘Dang, that was too easy.’”
The Vols took a 17-7 lead into halftime after a 34-yard Tanner McKee field goal as the second quarter expired, but the Raiders stormed back.
Not long after halftime, Lamar’s JaMichael Jackson shot up the middle for a 49-yard touchdown on fourth down, although the extra point was blocked.
Coleman Clay knocked a 32-yard field goal through the uprights early in the fourth quarter.
Starkville Academy quarterback Briggs Bennett tossed two touchdown passes for the Vols in the first half, getting his team out to an early lead.
Bennett found Wyatt Buice over the middle for a 34-yard catch-and-run score in the first quarter and connected with Wyatt Johnson for a 16-yard score on third-and-11 in the second.
The junior made some plays with his legs, too, juking two defenders on an 11-yard first-run down on third-and-9 from midfield early on.
“We would not have won the game without him,” Nicholas said. “No chance we win without Briggs.”
Bennett had his low points, though. He tossed three interceptions, but the third — in Vols territory in the fourth quarter — was fumbled back to Starkville Academy by Lamar’s Ty Wiggins.
Given new life, the Vols marched down the field, the drive resulting in Nicholas’ clutch score.
“They didn’t put their head down,” Nicholson said. “They kept competing. They kept fighting. Those are things that you want to see in a team in a Game 1 where they could easily say, ‘Oh, there’s always next week.’
“And they didn’t. They said, ‘We want to win this one tonight.’”
Starkville Academy will host Jackson Academy on Friday in the Vols’ home opener.
Starkville Academy 24, Lamar School 22
SA 7 10 0 7 — 24
LS 0 7 6 9 — 22
SA — Wyatt Buice 34 pass from Briggs Bennett (Tanner McKee kick), clock 1:03
LS — Austin Acton 12 run (Coleman Clay kick), clock 7:47
SA — Wyatt Johnson 16 pass from Bennett (McKee kick), clock 4:17
SA — McKee 34 FG, clock 0:00
LS — JaMichael Jackson 49 run (kick failed), clock 9:58
LS — Clay 32 FG, clock 10:46
SA — Charlie Nicholas 5 run (McKee kick), clock 5:37
LS — Austin Acton 6 pass from Wyatt Bond (pass failed), clock 0:10
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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.