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Yellow Jackets exit Class 5A on top

 

Matthew Stevens

 

JACKSON -- After more than 23 years, Jamie Mitchell finally has a gold ball trophy. 

 

After stops at Tupelo, Olive Branch, and Itawamba Agricultural high schools, Mitchell's pursuit of the elusive state championship ended when his resurgent Starkville High football program won its final game. 

 

Starkville took home its first state championship in 11 years Saturday with a dominating 28-11 victory against Pascagoula in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state title game at Veterans Memorial Stadium."There are no words to describe this feeling. None," Mitchell said as he hugged his wife and daughters at midfield. 

 

In his third season at Starkville, Mitchell finally brought the championship trophy back to Oktibbeha County. Win a title was something Starkville High Director of Athletics Stan Miller asked Mitchell to do when that he offered him the job.  

 

To accomplish the goal, Mitchell built a program that had less than 70 players when he took over, that went 5-6 in his first season, lost to Picayune last season in the Class 5A title game, and suffered the tragic death of Devin Mitchell in the offseason to get the job done. 

 

"This is kind of where Starkville is supposed to be and where we belong," Mitchell said. "We want a dynasty here so bad, but I promise you this: We're going to enjoy tonight." 

 

Starkville's 38-21 loss to Picayune last season was the most crushing for Mitchell and a number of returning players that received silver medals after that loss, only to get gold ones Saturday. The loss carried over to the parking lot at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as Starkville's bus broke down in the parking lot. As a result, Starkville didn't get home until close to 4 a.m. the next day. 

 

Saturday's ending was much more special as Starkville played its last game as a Class 5A school. 

 

Against Pascagoula (11-3), Starkville (12-3) brought out its bag of tricks early to re-take the lead on its second drive. Senior quarterback Gabe Myles found Princeton Jones on a slant route that went for a 25-yard touchdown on a lateral for the game's first touchdown. 

 

"We'd been working on it for several weeks and it just seemed like the right time to pull it out of the bag on a third-and-long situation," Mitchell said. 

 

Myles, who has given a verbal commitment to Mississippi State University, finished with 124 yards in his last game in a Starkville High uniform. The 185-pound quarterback had to leave the game in second quarter with an undisclosed injury after taking a hit on a option play. Myles missed two games earlier this season with a high ankle sprain.  

 

Sophomore Caleb Wilson, the son of MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson, took over. Myles returned against Pascagoula and found the speed burst through the gaps. 

 

"I was a little scared that it was more serious, but I was glad it wasn't too bad and I could get back out there," Myles said. "My team needed me and as a senior. I needed to be out there." 

 

Starkville's made it 14-3 on a five-play drive that featured all runs. The 63-yard drive included speed option runs around the end by senior tailback Preston Baker and Myles. 

 

Baker was a major part of Starkville's 222 rushing yards. The senior accounted for 111 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. 

 

"He did what a senior is supposed to do," Myles said. "He sure did lead, and I thank my boy for running the ball." 

 

Starkville's defense, which held Pascagoula to 98 yards in the first half, ended the second quarter on a game-changing play, a tipped pass by Stacey Warren. The football ended up in the hands of Starkville senior linebacker David Fair Jr., who returned the ball to the 1-yard line. 

 

Starkville, which didn't allow an offensive touchdown in its first six regions games, forced five turnovers, including four interceptions by quarterback Stacey Warren. 

 

"We shut out five of our region opponents this season, and let's be honest, our defense has carried us," Mitchell said.  

 

Fair, whose father was a standout tailback on one of the SHS' teams that won back-to-back state championships in 1983-84, has been playing on a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. It was Fair's first interception of the season. The senior came to Jackson with 38 tackles and six sacks. 

 

"We got great players, coaches, and fans here at Starkville, and through all we've gone through this season, it finally paid off," Fair said. 

 

SHS senior defensive back Johnny Smith finished his high school career with three interceptions. He entered the game with one. 

 

Pascagoula's only three points of the first half came on its first drive. It capitalized on a mental mistake by Starkville on a roughing the punter penalty on a fourth-and-16 play. 

 

"On a big stage like this, you really have to guard against your mistakes," Pascagoula coach Lewis Sims said. "I thought Starkville and coach Mitchell did a real good job of taking advantage of ours. We never really could get a rhythm going offensively." 

 

Saturday's state championship represented the last game for Starkville in Class 5A. The Yellow Jackets will move up to 6A next season. 

 

On the first drive of the second half, Pascagoula senior tailback Kevin Scott fumbled inside the 10-yard line. Starkville junior linebacker Marlo Rogers fell on the football at the 4. However, the Panthers forced a safety when they stopped senior H-back Stanley Higgins in the end zone. 

 

The Panthers followed that score with a 34-yard field goal by Grant Warren and an onside kick recovery deep in Starkville territory. The recovery led to another field goal by Warren, who is getting recruited by Tulane University and as a preferred walk-on to the University of Mississippi. 

 

Myles' eight-play, 83-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter sealed the victory and allowed the Starkville defense to force Warren into several more mistakes in a desperation mode. 

 

Myles was seen after the game arm in arm with Mitchell posing for pictures in the last game they'll be paired in together. 

 

"I don't know if I could've ever expected to be here two straight years, but if I never get the chance to come back I'm blessed to have this experience," Mitchell said. "This is special."

 

 

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