July 22, 2014 10:05:39 AM
CLINTON -- For the first time, the spotlight that comes with the Mississippi High School Activities Association's state championship football games will shine on the state's brightest stages.
On Monday, the MHSAA announced a four-year deal that will result in all six state championship games to be played on campus at Mississippi's two Southeastern Conference representatives, as the 2014 and 2016 championships will be played at Mississippi State's Davis Wade Stadium, while the 2015 and 2017 versions will be played at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at Ole Miss.
"We feel like these state championship games should be a top five experience of a lifetime for our fans, our players and our schools," said MHSAA Executive Director Don Hinton, who announced the four-year deal during a press conference at the association's home office. "We have been studying different venues, different opportunities for the past several years, and we used the state of Alabama as a model. They rotate their games between Alabama and Auburn, based on which school hosts the Iron Bowl. We decided to follow that model with the Egg Bowl.
"In the end, the chance for our student-athletes to play in two SEC stadiums was too great to pass up."
All three in-state schools -- MSU, Ole Miss, the University of Southern Mississippi --submitted bids to host the state championship series, which will crown a champion in all six MHSAA classifications on the weekend of Dec. 5-6 this year.
While Southern Miss will not host a championship weekend, M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg will be the site of the Miss.-Ala. All-Star Classic in 2015 and 2017. The All-Star Classic is an annual event that pits the top 40 seniors from each state against each other one week after the conclusion of the prep football season. All 27 previous iterations of the all-star game were held in Alabama.
"We feel like this is a great opportunity for Southern Miss, to be able to host many of the top prospects in the two states for the all-star game," said Hinton. "For us, this will be the first time that this game, which has a great deal of heritage and tradition, will be played on Mississippi soil."
'It was time'
The state championship games have been held in Jackson's Veterans Memorial Stadium since 1992, and Hinton says the decision to leave the state capitol was a result of a long, drawn-out process.
"This all happened over a period of about three years," said Hinton. "One of the biggest factors was simply atmosphere, and it was time to make the change. The SEC facilities that we have in this state are simply more modern and more desirable for our student-athletes. We want the best experience possible for our student-athletes, and to do that, we had to look to the top facilities."
MSU's Davis Wade Stadium, which will host the inaugural championship series on an SEC campus, has recently been upgraded with an expansion and renovation that will increase capacity to over 61,000.
For Hinton, who says the title games in Jackson averaged between 23-25K in attendance the past few years, the goal for the initial year in Starkville is "Around 30,000. That's a number we'd all be happy with."
Anywhere, any time
One criticism the MHSAA has heard on the move to Starkville and Oxford has been the loss of Jackson's central location, as the games will now shift toward the northern half of the state.
Such a criticism is far outweighed by the positives according to Hinton.
"When I was coaching, I'd have gone absolutely anywhere to play for a state championship," said Hinton. "I feel confident our schools, our fans and all of our communities will travel to these games no matter where they are. I look at a state like Louisiana, which plays its games in the New Orleans Superdome. That's far from a centralized location, but it works because kids want to play there.
"That applies here. Kids want to play in these SEC stadiums."
Basketball tournament grows
Another postseason modification announced Monday involved the state's basketball tournament. To date, 36 teams have been able to qualify for state tournaments in Jackson, but the MHSAA has now raised that number to 84 teams in girls' and boys' play that will make a trip to the state capitol.
The change eliminates neutral site North/South state tournaments, instead bringing the top teams from each half of the state to a 10-day event that will include state quarterfinals, semifinals and championship games.
Boys will play their quarterfinal games at Jackson State's Athletics and Assembly Center while girls will play quarterfinals at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. All semifinals and championship games will remain at the Mississippi Coliseum.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
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