December 29, 2012 11:06:18 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
The path in which all three local head coaches which led their teams to state championships this season couldn't have been three more different pictures to envision.
Noxubee County High School began the season as dominant as they ended it with a 16-0 record and domination over traditional powers Starkville High and West Point High along the way.
Starkville was humbled to a 1-3 start in non league play, fell out of the Class 5A rankings at one point and had more than a significant number of people questioning if they were even the best Class 5A school in their region, let alone the state of Mississippi.
Heritage Academy simply got on a momentum roll for the last five games of the season and won its first state championship since 1986.
The singular force all three programs and their coaches (Noxubee's Tyrone Shorter, Starkville's Jamie Mitchell and Heritage Academy's Barrett Donahoe) had in common was it was the first trophy they proudly took back to their school as a head coach.
It's this singular act that made it an easy decision to name all three men co-Coaches of the Year for 2012 in The Dispatch's Large School category.
"What happens is you get your first job in this business and you think 'you know what I really would love to do, I'd love to coach a team to a state title'," Mitchell said. "You just don't realize when you're that young coach that it'll take the most special year of your life with special kids and then a little luck to actually do it. I've been doing this for over 20 years and I loved every minute of that night in Jackson."
What Mitchell didn't love in August was his team's inability to keep players out of the training room and the doubt that crept in to his players' minds after starting the first month of the season with losses to Noxubee County, Madison Central and West Point.
"We didn't have nearly enough of our key pieces because of injury and when you think about it, you need a full squad of athletes to compete with those three schools," Mitchell said.
However, it was the return of those players and the leadership of Mitchell's staff that pushed the Yellow Jackets to a second consecutive undefeated region record in Class 5A and give them all the confidence they needed heading into the playoffs. Starkville would roll through a 11-game winning streak to its first state championship since 2001.
"We talked about going back to Jackson every practice, every game, everyday and sometimes we knew we were the only ones talking about it," Mitchell said. "I just had a special group of young men that didn't know how to lose do-or-die football games this season."
While Starkville felt like they had the target on their back following a state runner up season last year, their season-opening opponent Noxubee County had felt disrespected by everyone outside of Macon. The Tigers weren't ranked in the overall Top 5 of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's All-classification poll and thought they were one of the best teams in the state of Mississippi.
"We knew we had a great team after the jamboree and in the preseason when our kids felt like everybody was downgrading what they could do," Shorter said. "Our kids played with that chip on their shoulder and as the hunted and we encouraged that."
Noxubee County walked, and maybe more importantly ran powerfully through, everybody on their schedule culminating in a 16-6 victory over Greene County in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A state championship game. Shorter, who took over in 2010 from his former boss and legend M.C. Miller, had brought a distinctly different attitude to the Tigers program this fall. The composition to winning in 2012 for NCHS was simple but underused in Macon historically -- dominate the line of scrimmage and run the football right up the middle on opponents.
"What people didn't realize about my job here was the difficulty in taking over for a legend like Coach Miller because when you take a new job where the expectations aren't high, you can settle in," Shorter said. "My job was to do what Coach Miller had done, which was win state titles, and do it fast."
Lucky enough for Shorter, he had a team in 2012 that he'd already coached earlier and knew their talent level before they ever were given starting roles at the varsity level.
"I coached these kids in eighth grade and knew their families before I got the head job at Noxubee," Shorter said. "So while some players on this team like Darrell Robinson or Dylan Bradley surprised some with their numbers, I'd seen him do it against kids their age for years."
Shorter's job, like Mitchell's in Starkville, is to keep their program's at that winning level despite the preseason speculation that Shorter believes may lead to undervaluing the Class 4A defending champs in 2013.
"I'm sure they're going to look at say we're losing 23 seniors from this year's club and think they'll take a step back," Shorter said. "Guess what? We lost 20 seniors from last year's team and what we do is prove every year our program is strong and not just certain players from year to year."
Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe was brought in during January to do something special and winning the school's first state title in 26 years certainly fit the bill to the desperate public waiting for a winner to cheer for. Donahoe, who came to the Patriots from Marshall Academy, was famous for bringing the pistol formation to the program.
However, after starting 2-5 in first season, it was looking like another 'wait till next year' type campaign for the transition to be in full effect.
Then the Patriots won their last five games in a row including two playoff games away from home to capture the Mississippi Association of Independent School Class AAA-II state championship. Before this remarkable run, HA fans had only experienced two previous playoff seasons in the last dozen years.
"The change of the culture was key for us because it wasn't like these young men didn't want to win or give their best effort," Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe said. "They were the most fun to coach because even in the early games we lost, the effort was there. I just thought the good football we were playing early finally translated into wins."
Heritage Academy personified the team that came out of nowhere to win it all in shocking fashion especially with the last loss of the season being a one-point margin over the team they'd face in Clinton for the state time - Magnolia Heights.
"I said it during the team banquet that once we got to that game that we'd known what it took to win a championship," Donahoe said. "What I'm so excited about it is all the young kids that got to see what it's like to have all the summer work and effort pay off when everybody buys into a new philosophy and culture of a program."
The one thing all three men selected to this honor will have next season is the expectation of doing something this special all over again next season as defending champions.
"We don't have a different attitude at Starkville than I'm sure most programs have," Mitchell said. "We feel like the state title game is where we should be every season and that will be the goal. I'm sure every school that lifts that trophy ought to feel that way otherwise they've lost before the season even starts."