CALEDONIA — The pain is everywhere.
It’s in the bedroom of Caledonia left tackle Judd Shelnut, who wrote down the fateful score on a board so he can read it every morning.
It’s in the bathroom of coach Michael Kelly, whose wife affixed a picture of the Cavaliers’ final shortcoming onto the mirror.
Caledonia might not be talking openly about last year’s loss to Senatobia in the north state championship game, but the Cavs sure haven’t forgotten it.
“We fought hard; obviously, we came up short,” quarterback Daniel Wilburn said. “We don’t really want to talk about it, but we’re using it as a mindset.”
How short, exactly? Two inches, according to Kelly — but perhaps none at all. The Cavaliers were the victim of a bad spot by the officiating crew, taking what looked like a clear first down away from them on a late-game Wilburn run. That brought up fourth-and-inches, and Wilburn was stuffed on another close play with another controversial spot.
Caledonia’s historic season was over, but the Cavs maintain their program is still intact — and hopefully still on the rise.
“We were two inches short, but they still trust me to come to work, and I trust them to show up to work,” Kelly said. “Hopefully we can overcome those two inches this year, and I think we’ll surprise a few people.”
The Cavaliers won’t catch as many of their opponents by surprise as last season, when they won a playoff game for the first time in school history — then won two more.
But they graduated several key players, including running back Darrius Triplett, fullback Curtavis Johnson, defender Darquez Williams, tight end Will Donald, defensive lineman Antwaun Adkins and offensive lineman Tyshawn Graham.
Not everyone is gone, of course.
“We graduated great young men,” Kelly said, “but we’ve got great young men still sitting in that locker room. We have a great senior and junior class. Some of them just never had to step out there and do it, but they’re fixing to. I expect these young men who have done it to lead them to the promised land.”
Wilburn is back for his senior year. Karsten Gullette, a three-year starter at safety who also plays slot back on offense, is back for his senior season. Shep Donald returns at inside linebacker, Reed Frady is back at kicker, and senior Parker Harris will replace Graham at right tackle.
“These guys can play,” Kelly promised.
They’ll have to as they step into new roles in a district still new to Caledonia. The Cavs were moved from MHSAA Region 2-4A to Region 1-4A, with only Mooreville joining them in the swap.
Caledonia gained four new region opponents in Corinth, Itawamba Agricultural, Shannon and Tishomingo County.
In 2021, the Cavs beat three of them. Itawamba dealt Caledonia a late loss to clinch the region crown — Caledonia’s only defeat save a COVID-19-related forfeit to rival New Hope in the season opener.
“We have a great division, but I think our young men have made their name in Region 1-4A also,” Kelly said. “We hope people are saying the same thing about us: ‘Ooh, we’ve got to go to Caledonia and play, and I don’t look forward to it.”
A rematch with New Hope on Aug. 26 begins the Cavaliers’ 2022 season, and Caledonia is counting down the days — literally.
Gullette said he instituted a countdown on his Snapchat story in advance of the road matchup with the Trojans.
“We’re at 51 days right now until we play New Hope,” Gullette said in mid-July. “I’m ready. We’re all ready. You can all tell in there. It’s the big talk about it.”
But early in summer workouts, Kelly expressed doubt about that.
Caledonia, he said, was a long way from being ready for its Aug. 26 bus trip to south Lowndes County.
“We’ve got some young kids that we still need to grow up,” he said. “The biggest thing I’m concerned with with our team right now is they still need to find their identity. They’re not last year’s team. We had a really good football team last year, but there’s a lot of people in the state of Mississippi who had real good football teams, and that has nothing to do with this year.”
Of course, the Cavaliers’ record-setting 2021 still matters — especially for the players who still remain.
“It’s great because everybody’s like, ‘It’s just Caledonia,’ but now we’re up there,” Wilburn said. “Now we’re trying to prove ourselves to other people.”
That’s not always easy given Caledonia’s history. In more than 50 years of football, the Cavaliers made the playoffs just six times prior to 2021. Each time, they lost in the first round.
As recently as 2017, Caledonia went winless.
“That 0-10 team, that was a sorry team,” Shelnut said. “That team didn’t do anything. That showed, because they didn’t win anything. And when we actually get our crap together, we go and win 11 games. We’ll beat people.
“As long as we can keep up that standard, there will be something to show for it.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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