On a muddy field in the November cold, the Starkville Academy football team made a playoff stand against eventual champion Heritage Academy. It was a game the Volunteers weren’t favored to win, having lost 30-0 in the regular season, and in the end they couldn’t finish the fight.
The game’s final score of 31-12 indicates a similar game to the first loss, but only reflects the difficulty the Vols had in finding the end zone against the Patriots. They fought hard with intensity and physicality against their rivals, and it wasn’t until late that the Pats put the game away.
At the end the Vols were emotional in defeat, knowing the year was over, and for seniors their time with the team was over, but it was a season they were proud of, and one that exemplified what head coach Chase Nicholson strives for from his team.
“I think that’s what we work for every day,” Nicholson said, reflecting on the effort his players put in last season. “I can go back years in the past and keep listing guys who put the work in every single day, and as a coach that’s what you’re trying to do no matter what. You want to go out and compete and leave it all out there no matter what. There are a lot of guys like that here that will go out and leave it all on the field no matter what.”
Wyatt Johnson, a senior defensive end and tight end, gave some insight into the work ethic throughout the team and the environment that fosters it.
“I think it’s practicing in a game-like atmosphere, practicing like you’re gonna play with the same physicality and intensity of a game,” Johnson said.
One of the players who graduated last year was starting quarterback Randall Futral. Junior Briggs Bennett and sophomore Luke McKenzie have been fighting to succeed Futral as starting quarterback, and Nicholson intends to give both of them a fair shake when the season gets going.
“We’re gonna give both of them opportunities to get game time and improve their game. We’re gonna have a solid QB1 but (also) a backup who gets his chances and game time as well because I’ve gotta have them ready if something happens. That’s what’s best for the team; I can’t sell out on one and then something happens Week 1 and the other isn’t ready. So they’ll both get plenty of time, have opportunities to lead the team, and they’re both going to be good at it and enjoy the competition.”
Senior Josh Word has plenty of interest in who will win the starting job, as he’ll be one of the leaders on the offensive line at left tackle this season. There’s not much concern from him about either candidate, though, and he’s very encouraged about what he’s seen from their work with the rest of the offense in the summer.
“It’s been great seeing how much they want to work and want that position, we’ve got two good quarterbacks fighting everyday for it,” Word said about the competition. “It’s still ongoing, it’ll go until week one for sure. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of competition, and we’re all thinking that we’ll do pretty well this year.”
There hasn’t been a decision yet on who will be QB1, but that hasn’t caused any distraction for the team. Nicholson likes to create a positive environment for the players, because for the coaches and players both football is fun, and putting in the work and maintaining the intensity just comes along with it.
“For me it’s exciting,” Nicholson said of the return to football season. “It’s a long wait, especially when you lose in the playoffs like that, a hard, tough loss. It’s hard to wait, but I’m excited and we’re ready to get back out there and play again.
“One of the main things we talk about is balancing the work and the fun, and I think that’s what they get good at. They love football, they love practice, and they love trying to get better. Everything about the game they love, and it makes it such a joy because it’s not a grind. Every day I get to come to work, but it’s not really work.”
The real fun began for the Vols on Friday when they took on Lamar School in Meridian. Their first home game will take place Friday against Jackson Academy.
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