March 1, 2018 10:58:29 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
Hundreds of players and coaches began the season with a dream of playing in the Big House.
Longtime home of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) State tournament, the old arena holds a special place in the hearts of many.
When this year's tournament tips off at the Coliseum and at Jackson State, the field will have a Golden Triangle flavor.
On the boys side, Columbus and Starkville are chasing a Class 6A championship, while Noxubee County and New Hope are doing the same in Class 4A. On the girls side, Starkville, the 2017 champion, is the only area team trying to repeat as a champion.
Each team needs three wins to win a title. Ninety-six teams will compete in the single-elimination event.
The beauty of Jackson is it always features a blend of newcomers, veterans who haven't been there in a while, and elder statesmen who are there on an annual basis.
Greg Carter is trying to lead the Starkville boys (24-3) to a fourth state championship. Carter took the Jackets to the title in 2010 and 2015 also lost the 2016 championship to Columbus.
Starkville's winning streak is at 21 games. The Yellow Jackets haven't lost since getting their football players back from a state championship run on the gridiron.
While Jordan Temple makes the Yellow Jackets go from the point guard position, one can't lose sight of the abilities of Blake Rogers, who has emerged as one of his classification's best scorers.
But Starkville may have an advantage in Carter. A veteran coach who has been in numerous games on this stage is worth four or five buckets.
Columbus also is streaking. Coach Anthony Carlyle's Falcons (24-6) have won 13 straight. Columbus and Starkville split during the regular season, but those games were so long ago.
Carlyle built one of the state's best Class 3A programs at Velma Jackson. Now he is trying to help Columbus win a second state championship. As mentioned earlier, Columbus beat Starkville in the 2016 championship game.
Leading scorer Robert Woodard II is the state's best player and well worth the price of admission. Carlyle has taken Woodard II and Denijay Harris and paired them with three new starters (R.J. DeLoach, Aaron Johnson, and Casey Smith) and the team has really taken flight.
On Saturday night, Starkville will play Warren Central and Columbus will play Terry. The rivals could meet Wednesday night in the semifinals.
The New Hope boys (22-7) are back in Jackson after a 10-year absence. The Trojans won their lone state championship in boys basketball in 2008.
Drew McBrayer has kept New Hope at a high level after taking over for Robert Byrd. The Trojans have won 20 or more games in three of the past four seasons.
Much of that success came thanks to Terryonte Thomas, a dynamic guard who had the Woodard-like ability to take over a game. While Thomas led the Trojans to a lot of victories, they never reached Jackson.
This season, a senior-laden squad has New Hope on a six-game winning streak and pointed in the right direction.
Tyler Stevenson may be the state's most underrated 6-foot-7 player. He can rebound, shoot, and defend, and he normally leads the team when an outcome is in doubt. Kyree Fields is the point guard. The symmetry between those two is outstanding.
However, New Hope has to have everybody pull his weight. When R.L. Mattix makes 3-pointers and Andrew Junkin blocks shots (he had eight in a playoff win Saturday), this squad can be a handful.
Noxubee County coach Danny Crawford has been calling his Tigers (20-12) a state tournament team. That prediction looked in doubt after a surprising home loss in the region tournament. The Tigers regrouped by winning the third-place game and twice in the playoffs to prove him right.
Noxubee County is back in Jackson for the first time in 15 years or so. However, Danny Crawford is no stranger to the big stage. He had West Lowndes on the state championship doorstep two years ago in Jackson. The Tigers have never won a title.
Noxubee County might the biggest unknown of the area's teams vying for a title. However, the Tigers have Armoni Clark and Jaquarius Smith, both of whom played on the school's state championship football team. Athletes with a pedigree to lead championship squads can't be undersold in Jackson.
Tonight, Noxubee County will face Raymond, while New Hope will face Lanier. The region rivals wouldn't meet until the state championship game.
On the girls side, Starkville (25-2) will face St. Martin and Mississippi State signee Daphane White at 9 a.m. Saturday at Jackson State.
Starkville was awarded last season's state championship after the MHSAA ordered Olive Branch to forfeit the title for playing an ineligible player. Before that, Starkville last won the title in 1992 with current coach Kristie Williams as a player.
Starkville has developed a dynamic scoring combination with Tabreea Gandy, Jariyah Covington, and Jalisa Outlaw.
The team also has been battle tested. After losing to Murrah in the regular season, Starkville came back to beat Murrah at home in the regular season and again in Jackson for the region championship.
This will be Starkville's fourth-straight trip to Jackson. The team has grown old together and the seniors really want to enhance their legacy on the way out.
Good luck to each squad. Make us proud.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.