October 11, 2013 10:18:03 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
Cyndi Daniels knows her football assignment tonight. She will be in the stands watching West Oktibbeha County High School play archrival East Oktibbeha County High School.
Dubbed as the Oktibbeha County Super Bowl, the teams play at 7 tonight in Maben.
"I just enjoy going to the games and watching the kids play," said Daniels, who is retired and lives in the Maben community. She attends almost all West Oktibbeha home football games. "It is something to do. I don't have any ties to the kids but it is something to do."
However, the days of attending these games may be numbered.
Last October, the State Department of Education took over the Oktibbeha County School district. Both West Oktibbeha and East Oktibbeha went under conservatorship thanks in large part due to repeated underperformance on state test scores. The minimum length of this take-over is three years.
In the summer of 2015, a decision about the future of the Oktibbeha County Schools will be determined. The schools could continue to exist as separate entities or the two county high schools could close and their students -- roughly 250 in grades 7-12 -- would then be bussed to Starkville High School.
It appears the closing of the schools is the most likely route to be chosen.
"We are acting like the end is here," West Oktibbeha football coach Danny Crawford said. "There could be a way to save the schools but it does not look likely. Realistically, we are all looking at being somewhere else doing something two years from now."
When the state takes over a school district, the Mississippi High School Activities Association automatically places a school on probation and rules them ineligible for all postseason play. Schools are allowed to play 50 percent of a regular season schedule. This means football plays nine games with no postseason, while basketball plays 14 games with no postseason.
Friday's contest will still count in the MHSAA Class 1A, Region 3 standings. The game is also West Oktibbeha's Homecoming.
The biggest impact was felt for a West Oktibbeha football team, which won a school-record eight games last season and an East Oktibbeha track program, which had won numerous North State Class 1A championships recently.
"It is really hard because a lot of days you come to the field house and you ask 'What is the point?'" East Oktibbeha senor lineman Clayton Carr said. "You have to play for yourself. You have to really be motivated to want to be out there. It is hard."
East Oktibbeha saw a drop in football participation this year, because of the sanctions. West Oktibbeha actually saw its number increase because Crawford -- also the school's basketball coach -- required basketball players to play football. He said it was the only way to ensure the school would have enough players to field a team this season.
"Football is really good," West Oktibbeha senior linebacker/running back Eddie Johnson said. "I don't think people realize how much we need this. It helps us stay out of trouble. It's fun. Some days, it is frustrating but you have to keep going."
Conner Dale works at a convenience store in the community of Crawford. He can't image not having the daily traffic of teachers and students generated East Oktibbeha students and teachers.
"Sports are so important to any community," Dale said. "From an academic standpoint, it is probably a better thing for these students to get to experience things at Starkville High. For the kids from the back roads, who want to play sports and make something of themselves, this hurts a lot.
"I don't think anything around here will be the same if the schools go away like this."
Sleepy Robinson quarterbacked the East Oktibbeha football team in the 1980s, when the school was known at B.L. Moor High School. West Oktibbeha is the former Sturgis High School. Robinson later played at Mississippi State and his lengthy high school coaching career, included a brief stop back at his alma mater.
"You have to look at all of these great opportunities the kids will get at Starkville," Robinson said. "It will have a lasting impact on these young people. Will we miss the rivalry? Yes. If you played or coached in these games, it is special.
"Both communities will be out in full force, even though both teams are struggling. You always want to win the West-East game, especially if is going to be one of the last ones."
With a later start time for each team's schedule, this meant less practice time as well. Thanks to a deficiency in bodies and the late start, the results on the field have not been kind. Each team is 0-4. The duo has been outscored 362-27.
"Since this a rivalry game, I think you will see every player put everything on the line," East Oktibbeha first-year coach John Davis said. "We are both 0-4 and we both need a win. We have talked to our kids about the rivalry and the importance of winning this particular game."
Davis took the East Oktibbeha job in July with the future of the school district very much in doubt. He is in a similar situation to Crawford, as he tries to get his young men ready for battle, knowing full well his entire world could change in less than 24 months.
"This is the most difficult thing I have ever been through in coaching," Crawford said. "For the other players and coaches who have left the district, I respect and understand that. I thought long and hard about it. But what would happen to these kids right here right now?
"They need love, guidance and support like any other kid in other high school. It has been a long, hard road. There are no answers. I just hope other school districts can learn from the mistakes that we made. I would not wish this on anyone."
Daniels has seen the struggle first-hand. After graduations and other defections, Crawford had four players when he took over the football whistle.
"It is tough watching the kids go through this," Daniels said. "The old saying goes is that you are all in this together. But it feels like the football players on their own island without a boat coming to get them. I don't know how many people will miss these schools, if they close. I know I will. I just enjoy going to the games.
"There are a not lot of us but there are some of us."
East Oktibbeha has the upper hand when it comes to seniors who have played in this game for three or four years now. West Oktibbeha holds the upper hand when it comes to recent success. The Timberwolves have won the last six series meetings, including a 34-6 win last season in Crawford.
After the game, the Timberwolves had clinched a playoff berth and were putting together a run for the MHSAA Class 1A state championship. Slightly more than a week later, news came which altered both high schools forever.
The goal went from a state championship to making sure the doors stay open.
"Our goal right now is simply to win one game," West Oktibbeha junior linebacker Lysanius Ford said. "It sounds simple. It is a lot harder than you would think."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter