November 4, 2012 1:08:46 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
SENATOBIA -- Starkville Academy football coach Jeff Terrill said he'll lose sleep for weeks after one call: The choice to kick the ball to Fernando Van Hook.
Terrill knew the transfer from Memphis University School was dangerous, and keeping the ball out of his hands on special teams was the plan Friday night. But after his team scored its first touchdown, Terrill let kicker Johnathon Burton challenge the senior speedster.
"The idea was Johnathon honestly can kick it out of the end zone," Terrill said. "If he doesn't catch it perfectly, then it's trouble, and it was trouble early on that play."
Van Hook, who finished with more than 400 all-purpose yards, made the return look easy, going 97 yards for a touchdown. The final scoring play of the first half gave Magnolia Heights the momentum it used to earn a 40-28 victory in the semifinals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division 2 playoffs.
"It was the play of the game, and I take full responsibility for not making the right call," Terrill said. "We knew (Van Hook) would get loose a couple times, but to give him the ball there wasn't the right move."
Van Hook, who took an unofficial visit to the University of Kentucky this summer, had 32 carries for 296 yards. He helped seal the deal for the Chiefs (9-3) with a 26-yard interception return of a pass by quarterback Drew Pellum in the fourth quarter.
"(Fernando) is special. There's no doubt about it, but we got 30 other kids that are just as special playing for us that helped us get to a state championship game," Magnolia Heights coach Cliff Young said.
When asked how many possible Division I players he had on his roster, Young pinpointed why Van Hook has played such a key role in his team's success.
"Well, only one. Probably you're right," Young said. "But we have a great team, and (Fernando) would be the first to tell you that."
Van Hook left the game in the first quarter after suffering a slight shoulder injury, but he was back in by the end of the possession.
Eight minutes in, Magnolia Heights led 13-0 and Van Hook already had found the end zone on a 20-yard scamper.
"I just told my coaches, 'Keep feeding me the ball' because that's what a leader does is shoulder the responsibility of whether his team wins or losses," Van Hook said. "I don't waiver or hide from that responsibility."
Starkville Academy (5-7) capitalized on an interception of quarterback Luke Young to re-gain possession. Pellum scored on a 1-yard run as Young and the Chiefs tried to call timeout to get the Volunteers on the scoreboard. Terrill then decided to kick to Van Hook.
"The return was easy because I had such great blocking," Van Hook said. "You could probably tell I didn't shuffle my feet or cut much. When I don't do that and get to run straight, I feel I'll score."
Starkville Academy trailed 26-7 in the middle of the third quarter when Pellum hit Hunter Bolin down the seam for a 76-yard touchdown pass. Pellum had 291 yards and was involved in all four of the Volunteers' scores.
"I thought it was a heck of an effort by our kids, but it just seemed like every time we had a big play, they answered," Terrill said. "They answered every single time."
The final answer came after Starkville recovered an onside kick and a Pellum-to-Bolin touchdown pass made it 26-21 with 5 minutes, 27 seconds remaining. Van Hook responded on the second play of the Chiefs' next possession by going 73 yards for a touchdown to put the
game out of reach. The 5-foot-9 tailback broke two tackles on the way, which was a common theme for the Volunteers as they tried to contain one of the league's most dangerous talents.
Magnolia Heights will take on Heritage Academy on Friday at Mississippi College in Clinton for the state title. Magnolia Heights beat Heritage Academy 14-13 in Senatobia in the regular season.