Football practice during the week of Thanksgiving is a luxury enjoyed by 24 teams across Mississippi.
This is the sixth time in Brad Peterson’s career that he’s had to make plans for his teams to prepare for a North or South State Championship. The seasoned veteran and his staff set out a detailed schedule for every day leading up to Madison Central’s Friday showdown in the 6A North State final against Starkville.
With school out for the week, the Jaguars began practice each day at 9:30 a.m. On Thanksgiving, the players’ families were invited for breakfast and to watch the team’s final walk-through. Friday will feature a pancake breakfast followed by a movie, lunch and one last chance for everyone to get on the same page hours before Madison Central gets off the bus in Oktibbeha County at 5:15 p.m.
The hectic nature of this week and planning is routine for Peterson. This is all foreign to junior quarterback Jack Walker, who’s never played this late in the season.
“Last year I was at my grandparent’s house for Thanksgiving and now we’re practicing football,” Walker said. “It’s awesome that we’re able to still be playing.”
On what coaches and players are calling their “revenge tour,” Madison Central is riding high as the hottest team in the state with two weeks remaining in the postseason. The Jaguars followed up their first round upset of No. 1 South Panola by defeating Warren Central 21-14 last week.
Every team Madison Central has faced in the postseason is one that beat the Jaguars earlier in the year. The ups and downs were aplenty this season. After a 3-0 start, the Jaguars then lost five of their next six games. The last loss of that stretch came against Starkville, ranked No. 2 in the state.
It wasn’t until Week 9 that Peterson noticed a change in his team. As the losses piled up and the playoff picture began to narrow with Madison Central on the outside looking in at the 6A race, the chips finally fell in place.
“After we lost to Starkville, which put us at 4-5 on the year, we met with our kids on the field,” Peterson said. “I don’t talk to our kids after the game as a group. I’m probably one of a few coaches that doesn’t do that. I don’t think they listen after a game so I just wait and talk to them Monday. But I told the coaches to get them together because I thought we played Starkville really, really good even though we got beat by 18 points. I just had that feeling that our team was fixing to experience something special. Our other coaches did that night, too.”
Peterson’s intuition was spot on. Following a 28-10 loss against the Yellowjackets, the Jaguars won their next five games.
The number 18 holds extra significance. South Panola beat the Jaguars by 18 during their metro area matchup in Week 4. Starkville followed suit with the same margin of victory.
The difference Peterson and his staff noticed had more to do with how the Jaguars handled themselves away from the game during wins and losses. The first-year Jaguars coach vowed to change the culture when he took the position at Madison Central last December. The Starkville game showed that his efforts were paying off.
“When we lost games early in the year there was finger pointing, there were guys ready to fight — not literally, but you had that sense, there were guys that were in their mind wanting to quit because it wasn’t worth it, there were guys that as soon as the game would end they would want to walk off the field without shaking hands and I had to get coaches to go make the players turn around and shake hands,” Peterson said. “We don’t ever want to accept losing as OK, but we’re going to do everything with class.
“You go back to that Starkville night and when bad things were happening, they didn’t start griping. They showed that they were going to keep fighting. When the game was over they realized, ‘Hey, we do have a good team.'”
That’s why the Jaguars believe that losses to the top teams in Region 2-6A — Starkville, Clinton and Warren Central — were beneficial, especially down the stretch.
“They taught us to never give up,” Walker said. “Playing the schedule we played helped us in the playoffs. It taught us to fight and finish. Thinking back on it, there are some games we should’ve won. You wish you had them back, but we’re playing North State so we’re OK with it.”
Starkville’s offense was limited to 232 yards of offense, its third lowest total of the season, in its first meeting with Madison Central. The Jaguars’ defense has been its most consistent facet all year long, but even as good as that unit is, the Yellowjackets’ biggest weapon consistently causes problems.
That’s something Peterson doesn’t expect to change a whole lot on Friday night. He calls his secondary the underdog against four-star wide receiver A.J. Brown, but the way his defense has played down the stretch gives Peterson confidence in the Jaguars’ ability to capture the North State title.
“A great player is going to make great plays, you just have to somehow limit him,” Peterson said. “I’ve seen teams all year be in the best coverage against A.J. Brown, and he goes up and makes an unbelievable play. There’s nothing you can do about it other than keep fighting and limit those plays.”
Fighting through adversity and perseverance has not only been a constant this year, but for Peterson throughout his career. While the Jaguars battled to overcome losses, injuries and changing their mindset, Peterson, too, has overcome his hurdles. One that happened two weeks ago. Another he hopes to achieve in Week 15.
“I’m 0-2 against (Starkville coach) Ricky Woods, but I was 0-2 against (South Panola) Coach (Lance) Pogue, too,” he said.
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.