November 9, 2012 9:20:01 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Tell Starkville High School football coach Jamie Mitchell his good friend Pat Byrd has revitalized a program at Saltillo High and he'll happily say you're underselling his efforts.
"You're being kind to say anything other than that program was dying before he got there," Mitchell said. "That program was on life support in terms of talent, community support, and wins before Pat got there and they've had a solid 2012 season."
When Byrd took the job two years ago, he said he liked the opportunity to build a program from scratch and put his marking on a rebuilding project.
"I liked it because it is a challenge and a growing school," Byrd said. "I like the challenge of doing something at a different place."
Byrd took over Saltillo after serving as football coach and athletic director at Amory for the past 10 years. He served as an assistant coach for Bobby Hall at Amory High and Louisville High, and also worked under James Sloan, a former head coach at Tupelo, Shannon, and Clinton, while at Saltillo.
"He's a good buddy of mine, and I remember thinking he was one of the best defensive minds around when I met him," Mitchell said. "It's no surprise he's gotten that program back to where it was in the 1970s under Willis Wright."
Wright, who coached the Tigers from 1973-80, has the Saltillo High football field named after him. His team's went 65-17-2 and won four consecutive Tombigbee Conference titles.
However, the Tigers are a long way from that success. They went 6-45 from 2005-2009 before Byrd took over. In just his second year at the school, he has the Tigers back in the Class 5A playoffs and ready for a game at 7 tonight against Starkville (8-3) in the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association North State playoffs.
Saltillo (7-4) has lost three games to teams -- Itawamba Agricultural, West Point, and Oxford -- with a combined three losses.
"They are about as good as a first-round opponent as you could draw," Mitchell said. "Despite being at home and achieving everything we set out to do this season so far, we'll have to play mistake-free football to win."
One key to Starkville's success will be the pre-snap reads of senior quarterback Gabe Myles. The Mississippi State University verbal commitment will have to recognize the blitzes that Byrd likes to send from everywhere. Myles has 789 yards passing and 10 touchdowns this season. He also has rushed for 328 yards and four scores.
"Gabe has done a great job this season picking up the blitzes and being able to find the weak points of that coverage," Mitchell said. "We expect Friday night to be no exception for him as one of out leaders."
Senior quarterback Andrew Soper will lead Saltillo. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder is 82 of 183 for 1,364 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has 196 carries for 973 yards rushing and 10 more scores.
"He's somebody we have to put somebody on for every play and make sure he doesn't hurt us individually with his athleticism and intelligence," Mitchell said.
The winner of tonight's game will face the winner of the tonight's Oxford-Provine game next week in the second round.