District play begins across the state tonight for Classes 5A and 6A. Over on Beasley Road, there’s a tangible difference for a Callaway program embarking on its first year in the top classification of Mississippi high school football.
Last season, the Chargers were 1-4 at the start of their Region 2-5A schedule and finished three games below .500. After returning nine starters on defense, an experienced offensive line and a core group of sophomores and juniors, Callaway has built a 4-1 record entering district play in Region 2-6A.
For Chargers second-year coach Patrick Austin, the change is welcomed along with the challenges.
“The interesting thing about 6A is that the division we’re in had so much uncertainty” he said. “Northwest Rankin and Madison Central brought in new coaches, everybody knew Cam Akers would be who Cam Akers is (at Clinton) and Warren Central is showing they’re just as good as they were last year. It’s exciting because you get less doubt. No one doubts the 6A level, the strength of schedule. Your validity is not questioned when you have a 6A badge next to your name. We’re excited.”
Austin’s group may have the hardest stretch in its district. While Region 3-6A has been referred to as the “SEC West” of prep football in Mississippi, Region 2 has held its own among the state’s powerhouse programs and developed legitimate title contenders.
The Chargers begin their district slate tonight at home against No. 2 Starkville. Six days later they have Clinton followed by a road battle at Northwest Rankin in Week 8. Two weeks later, Callaway travels to Madison Central on Oct. 16.
The gantlet begins with the top team in Region 2. Once Starkville (3-1) is out of the way, the Chargers will be able to gauge where they stand among the rest in their division.
“You get to measure yourself against the top dog first. We’ll know where we stand Friday night,” Austin said. “It’s like taking a test you know is coming. It’s here and our kids are embracing the challenge.”
Callaway built its record with wins over Ridgeland, Jim Hill, Provine and Terry. Playing bigger competition in non-district play was Austin’s way of preparing his team for the battles they’ll face weekly over the next month and a half.
“That was done purposely,” he said. “I know Ridgeland is 0-5 now but they are always well coached, they’re always top in the state in powerlifting, so that was done intentionally. We wanted hard-nosed games early in order to prepare us for what we’re about to go through.”
Class 6A is often regarded as the most physically demanding in the state. Callaway’s Week 5 opponent, Terry, competes in Region 3 with the likes of Oak Grove, Brandon and Meridian.
But has the physicality been that much of a noticeable difference from 5A to 6A?
“Not yet,” junior defensive end Aaron Odom said. “This week we’ll see.”
Starkville is praised for having one of the most aggressive defenses from top to bottom. The Yellowjackets haven’t allowed a score since Week 2 when they gave up a touchdown in a 20-7 win over Oxford.
Early postseason outlooks have Callaway on the outside looking in for one of the four playoff seeds awarded in Region 2.
But over the past 365 days, expectations have changed for the Chargers. Austin’s instilled a “next man up mentality” in a group that believes they’ll be able to compete for a shot at the playoffs, and that their brutal stretch will make them better.
“They’re pretty humble. They have to stay hungry,” Austin said. “We still got a lot of work to do. The kids’ morale is high, which is always good, but the success makes them eager to learn.
“If they’re willing to do the work that it takes to get it done, we’ll have a very good chance because we have a very talented group.”
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.