November 21, 2012 9:24:57 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- While the injuries mounted early in the season, the Starkville High School football team's defense never lost the faith.
The Yellow Jackets knew it would have a great chance to defend its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State championship when the calendar turned to November.
That chance will come at 7 p.m. Friday when Starkville plays host to Golden Triangle rival West Point at Yellow Jacket Stadium. The winner will play Pearl River Central or Pascagoula at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 in Jackson for the Class 5A state championship.
"We knew we would have a chance," Starkville senior linebacker David Fair said. "We just had to keep the faith and keep working hard. We knew there would be some challenges throughout the season. We just had to make sure we were playing our best at the end of the season."
Last season, Starkville defeated Hernando, West Point, and Ridgeland to reach the Class 5A state title game. It lost to Picayune 38-21 in the showdown in Jackson.
"The way last season ended was a big motivation for this team," Starkville junior linebacker Taylor Johnston said. "We felt like we didn't play our best game in the championship. The focus has been a lot better this year. We have paid attention in every meeting and on every play. The defense has really grown up."
A difficult schedule and uncertainty at several positions due to injury led to a tough start. Starkville completed its non-region schedule with a 1-3 record. However, the Yellow Jackets lost to Class 6A North State finalist Madison Central, West Point, and Class 4A North State finalist Noxubee County.
"We learned a lot from those games, even though we didn't win all of them," Fair said. "Playing those types of teams made us ready for our region games. We knew we had to play harder and compete better. Even though we lost some games, the team never lost confidence. We thought things could turn around."
Starkville will enter Friday's game riding a nine-game winning streak, just like West Point. The Yellow Jackets are 10-3, and both teams went undefeated in their regions. The similarities don't end there. On defense, Starkville is allowing 11.2 points per game, while West Point is allowing 11.8 ppg.
"We have really good teamwork," Fair said. "Everyone believes in one another. It is a lot of fun playing in our defense. The coaches put us in a position to make plays. We try to fly to the football and hit people. We know any play could result in a big turnover, which could put the game in our favor."
Starkville's defense proved its mettle last week. Against a high-octane Oxford passing attack, it only allowed one touchdown and created four turnovers. Early stops proved critical as the teams were tied 0-0 at halftime.
"Our defense played an incredible game," Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. "That was a very good offense we faced off against and they were up to the challenge. They work hard and they are dedicated to what they are doing. Every game, the goal is a shutout, and they are disappointed when the other team rips off any type of big play."
In its winning streak, Starkville has only allowed 46 points. In playoff victories against Saltillo and Oxford, Starkville has yielded only two touchdowns. The region schedule opened with four shutouts in five games.
"Once we got a couple of wins, we played with more confidence," Fair said. "That is what allowed us to take the next step."
The Yellow Jackets are allowing 184.5 yards per game. They have forced 28 turnovers, slightly better than two per game.
Johnston leads the team with 88 tackles, including nine for loss. Junior linebacker Marlow Rogers has 82 tackles, including five for loss. Junior defensive back Devonte Davis has 68 tackles, while senior defensive back Raphael McClain has 64.
Senior defensive back Dondre Dailey has a team-best three interceptions. Junior Kyle Jones has nine sacks, while Fair has six. Jones, Rogers, Derion Ford, A.J. Smith, and Maleke Bell each have two fumble recoveries.
Despite the gaudy numbers, a major challenge awaits against West Point. The Green Wave won a regular-season meeting 47-22 in the Yellow Jackets' fourth game of the season.
A season ago, West Point won 33-12 in the regular season, but Starkville won the playoff rematch, 20-14 in the second round of the playoffs. This season, a trip to Jackson is on the line.
"We just have to play with confidence and execute our assignments," Fair said. "There will be a big crowd, and everybody knows what we are playing for. The main thing is focusing on one play at a time."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter