Last Friday night, at the very end of his broadcast of Oak Grove’s thrilling victory over Brandon in the Class 6A South State finals, Warrior play-by-play man Kelly Sanner signed off with some very cautionary words.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Sanner said, responding to the desire among many Oak Grove football fans that last season’s state championship victory could have come against South Panola instead of Tupelo.
Be careful, indeed. Those Warrior fans have their wish, another crack at the mighty Panolians who embarrassed Oak Grove the first two times the Warriors made it to the state finals.
South Panola has been the gold standard for high school football in this state for the past dozen seasons, and an elite team for longer than that, so much so that many people have referred to the school as the “University of South Panola.”
And the Tigers’ record speaks for itself. From 2003 through 2010, South Panola won seven state championships in eight seasons in the state’s largest classification, the only loss coming in 2008 to Meridian in overtime.
During that period, the Tigers won 89 consecutive games, longest in Mississippi history and fifth longest in the country.
But times have changed, and while the Tigers are still among the state’s elite teams, they haven’t been quite as dominant the past few seasons.
In 2011 and 2013, South Panola was beaten in the North State playoffs, in the second round by Madison Central in ’11 and in the North State finals last season by Tupelo.
And the Tigers’ 6A state title in 2012 was a hard-fought 31-23 win over Brandon that ended a season in which South Panola was humbled earlier that year in one-sided losses against out-of-state powers Bentonville, Ark, and Hoover, Ala.
This year, the Tigers are 14-0, but even then they haven’t seemed quite as immortal as in the past. South Panola had to come from behind to win a couple of games this season, most notably in last week’s North State final against Starkville.
The Tigers trailed 13-0 at halftime in that game before rising up in the second half to win 36-26. Even so, it was considered by many to have been an upset, a notion that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Oak Grove, too, has changed from the all-finesse teams that were outclassed by the bigger, more physical Tigers in their two previous encounters.
The Warriors still spread the field and throw the ball to a wealth of talented, speedy receivers, but when they are at their best this season, it’s when they’ve been able to run the ball effectively.
It’s not a coincidence that when Brett Favre gave up the role as offensive coordinator after last season, veteran head coach Nevil Barr turned to offensive line coach Drew Causey as his new OC.
“Drew does a good job, and he’s got a good mind for the game,” said Barr. “He understands the passing game. But he’s also a line coach, and he understands the physical nature of the offense. He wants to be balanced. I just thought he was the ideal person for that position.”
So the question, then, is this: Can this Oak Grove team beat this South Panola team?
Sure. The Warrior program is no longer the starry-eyed newcomer it was in 2003, nor the one-dimensional 2009 team that was derailed by horrible weather, which included a steady snowstorm.
Even though it didn’t come against the Tigers, Oak Grove brings a ton of confidence from winning a state title last year that it has not had in the past.
In order for the Warriors to win, however, two things must happen.
First, senior quarterback Cameron Myers must have a good game. Myers is an immensely talented athlete who gives opponents headaches with his arm and his legs. But he can be erratic, and the Warriors have won some games in spite of his sometimes shaky performance.
That can’t happen against South Panola. Myers must keep his head about him and play within himself for the Warriors to win. He has enough weapons at his disposal that if he maintains his poise, while still keeping the wild card of his running ability, he has the talent to lead Oak Grove to a victory.
Second, Oak Grove must win the turnover battle. It was turnovers and mistakes that doomed the Warriors against South Panola in 2009, and the Tigers are still the same opportunistic team they’ve always been, going for the jugular when an opponent makes mistakes.
At the MHSAA press conference on Monday, Barr called this team, “overachievers,” and they’ve confounded all of the experts who expected them to struggle after losing such a talent-rich senior class from last season.
Oak Grove has found a multitude of ways to win this season, gaining confidence along the way, and I think they can find a way one more time and make it back-to-back championships.
Contact Stan Caldwell at (601) 584-3137.