September 27, 2013 10:31:25 AM
STARKVILLE -- Odd.
This was the common word used to describe two schools in the Golden Triangle not being on each other's football schedule.
Mississippi High School Athletic Association reclassification fixed the fact that Starkville and Columbus high schools didn't play each other the past two seasons by placing them together in Class 6A, Region 2. By doing so, two communities will get a chance to earn measure themselves against a rival at 7 tonight.
"I was talking to the Columbus coaching staff this week and they all said the excitement can be felt throughout the hallways and everyone is happy to have the feeling of Starkville week back at school," WMSV-FM 91.1 radio news director Anthony Craven said.
Craven has been doing Columbus High football play-by-play since 2005 for WMSV in Starkville. He said he has had student workers from Mississippi State eagerly anticipating the return of the rivalry.
"This is a game people in the Golden Triangle area take personally," Craven said. "They took it personally when it seemed odd the teams didn't play the past two seasons."
In the same vein of the dissolution of rivalry games against Tupelo and Louisville, the Columbus game has represented more to Starkville than just one victory.
"We've got fans here at Starkville that feel like a victory against Columbus would mean more to them than a playoff victory, which is just crazy," Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. "I can promise you the division game aspect to this game means the most to us in the coaching room."
The last time the schools found themselves on the gridiron Starkville fell 2 yards away from making the Class 6A playoffs on a failed two-point conversion on the final week of the season. For fans in the Golden Triangle, this matchup represents the high school version of Ohio State-Michigan or Auburn-Alabama. This season, fans understand tonight's game is a statement game because one team will get off to a fast start in region play.
"I applaud the MHSAA for deciding that one of the ways rivalries are born out is proximity," WKBB-FM 100.9 play-by-play voice Jay Perry said. "It's great for the two programs, players, and the community. It was a smart decision."
Last season, when it was learned Starkville would move back up to Class 6A, people wondered if the teams would play again.
"That was my first thought and question because I was just interested in how they'd make it work with Columbus and Starkville being so far away from the Jackson area schools in Class 6A," Craven said. "You just had this thought that they would try everything they could to put them together."
Said Perry, who graduated from Starkville High and is an attorney in the Starkville area, "Starkville has had four big rivals in its history: Tupelo, West Point, Louisville, and Columbus. When I was growing up,Columbus had two high schools in Columbus Lee and Caldwell before they merged (in 1992). Rivalries, in all athletic endeavors, are part of what make sports great for everybody involved."
Starkville (2-2) had a bye week to focus on Columbus, the team Mitchell said in the preseason would be a dark horse to win the region. The players didn't need the time to get familiar with their opponent.
From 2007-2010, the Starkville-Columbus game has been decided by single-digit margin.
"You've got is players that were ninth-graders the last time Starkville played Columbus, so they'll have to have the rivalry re-introduced to them, but the close games in the past suggest the competitiveness of this game could do that," Perry said.
Starkville, Columbus, and Madison Central could be favorites in a region that also includes Northwest Rankin, Clinton, Greenville-Weston, Jackson Murrah, and Warren Central.
"What you have is two programs on a Friday night that believe they can make a statement as region play begins by saying if you want to compete in Region 2, the road will go through us," Craven said.
For Mitchell, Starkville is happy to have region games that likely will be more competitive. The Yellow Jackets were 14-0 in region play the past two seasons in Class 5A. Last year, that undefeated mark helped catapult them to a state title.
"We had games the last two years where as long as we didn't drive the bus into a ditch, we knew we were going to win," Mitchell said. "That is 100-percent not the case in Class 6A and this division. We have to be ready to compete every Friday night."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.