It’s been back down to business for the teams that will travel to Starkville this weekend for the Mississippi High School Activities Association Gridiron Classic.
And it’s tough business, too, as all of the coaches involved in the state championships find themselves preparing their teams for their most difficult challenge of the season.
Four teams from the Pine Belt, including Laurel in Class 5A, will compete for the ultimate prize in high school football, a gold football trophy awarded each season to the winners in the six state championship games.
On Friday, Bassfield battles Calhoun City in the Class 2A final at 3 p.m., followed by the Class 6A clash between Oak Grove and South Panola. On Saturday, Collins takes on Charleston for the Class 3A championship in the 11 a.m. game, with Laurel facing Oxford at 7 p.m.
“They’re a typical Charleston football team,” said Collins coach Ryan Earnest of his team’s opponent. “They’re extremely athletic, very fast, with a very physical style of football. They’ve been here; this is their third time in the past four years, and they’ve won it. It’s definitely going to be a task.”
Charleston coach Scott Martin, who took over in 2013 after Tony Vance left to take the job at Hattiesburg High, made one ironclad prediction in regard to the 3A final.
“I know the Tigers are going to win,” Martin said, referring to the fact that both teams have the Tigers as their mascot. Martin, though, was dead serious in talking about trying to defend Collins.
“They love to pass the ball, then if you stop the pass, they’ve got a great running attack, so our defense has to play hard and aggressive,” Martin said. “We’ve just got to play our kind of football. We love hard-hitting and getting after the football.”
The Class 2A championship game is a rematch from last year, won by Bassfield 48-7.
“I think we’ve improved, and we’ve watched film on them, and they’ve got good players just like they always do. So maybe we can make a little closer game,” said Calhoun City coach Perry Liles, who has the Wildcats in the state finals for the fourth time and has yet to win a title.
“The way I look at it is, I’d rather be there than not be there, because you can’t win it if you’re not there.”
The Yellowjackets are 6-0 in state championship games, including the past two titles in 2A, but Bassfield coach Lance Mancuso expects a much tougher game this year with the undefeated Wildcats than the two previous seasons.
Bassfield is especially wary of junior tailback Brieton Sykes, who has rushed for 1,453 yards and scored 27 touchdowns, and also has 533 receiving yards and another seven scores.
“Aside from the fact they have one of the best players in the state in the Sykes kid, who didn’t get a chance to play last year,” Mancuso said. “That’s going to be a motivating factor for him and their football team.
“They have just about everybody coming back, they’re extremely well-coached and no weaknesses, top to bottom. They’re as good as any team that’s going to be playing this weekend.”
Perhaps, but the team with the highest ranking is perennial powerhouse South Panola, which is also unbeaten and ranked ninth in the nation in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 rankings.
“They’re just like the old, typical South Panola football teams, except they maybe throw the ball a little better than they used to,” said Oak Grove coach Nevil Barr, whose Warriors are the defending state champs in 6A.
“They’re really good, everywhere.”
South Panola coach Lance Pogue, though, was impressed by what he’s seen on film of Oak Grove.
“I haven’t slept,” Pogue said. “Outstanding team, full of great athletes. I have unbelievable respect for Nevil Barr. They’re very talented with the skill positions and they’re the defending state champs, so we’ll have our hands full.”
Laurel will close out the busy weekend of football against Oxford, which is back in the 5A finals after losing last year’s state championship to Picayune 42-35.
“Our motto this season has been to finish,” said veteran Oxford coach Johnny Hill. “With eight minutes to play last year, we had a 14-point lead, but we didn’t finish and (Picayune) came back and won it.”
Hill also said the 5A final might be the longest game of the weekend, since both the Chargers and Golden Tornadoes like to throw the football a lot.
“We had high expectations coming into the season, but when you have those high expectations, it brings a lot of pressure,” said Laurel coach Todd Breland. “We went through some adversity at various times in the season, but the kids stayed the course and we’re awfully proud of them.”
MHSAA Gridiron Classic
• What: State football championships for all six classes
• When: Friday & Saturday
• Where: Davis-Wade Stadium at Scott Field, Starkville
•Tickets: $12 in advance (at participating schools), $13 at gate. NOTE: Each day’s ticket is good for all three games each day.
• On TV: Bounce Network (Comcast Cable Channel 216 in Hattiesburg)
• Inside: Game-by-game results for all 12 championship teams, 2B