October 31, 2013 9:50:18 PM
STARKVILLE - There's no coach speak being given to the Starkville High School players this week. This game at Warren Central isn't just like any other game they've played and it does mean more than all of the others.
Tonight's trip to Warren Central (6-3, 4-1 in Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 2) for the Yellow Jackets (7-2, 5-0 Class 6A, Region 2) can be the clinching game for the program's third straight region title and first since they rejoined Class 6A this season.
"We haven't tried to hide or lie to the kids about what Friday night means for our playoff chances in Class 6A and even if we did, what would that accomplish?," Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. "Kids know this stuff. They know what that one seed would mean for us."
With a victory in Vicksburg, Starkville would clinch the No. 1 seed in Region 2 and play at home for the first round. A loss to the host Vikings would cause a possible three-way tie at the top of the division and could send Starkville on the road for the first round of the playoffs.
However, before even addressing the implications of the matchup tonight, Mitchell certainly doesn't sound like a coach leading a team with a 19-game winning streak in region play.
Following a week where his team surrendered 297 rushing yards to Murrah High School, Starkville has tried to patch up a run defense that keeps losing talent to injuries. Starkville will be without leading tackler Taylor Johnston and are now dealing with injuries to linebackers A.J. Smith and Marlow Rogers to complicate the process of stopping a Vikings' attack that averages 176.9 yards on the ground.
"It's not about our scheme and we won't know if some of the things we've done this week will be working until we get to the field on Friday night," Mitchell said. "As soon as we get a player and start playing the kind of defense we should expect at Starkville, we lose another player."
The loss of Johnston, who was a team captain and starter at linebacker, has been more critical than the stat sheet could suggest as the 190-pound linebacker was responsible for getting the other 10 players lined up properly before the snap. Johnston is expected to be back for the playoffs after breaking bones in both hands and trying to play with a club and a brace two weeks ago against Madison Central.
"When you lose a player like him, it affects every other player on our team because it's about our guys getting lined up right from the jump," Mitchell said. "It was something with Taylor on the field that we didn't have to worry about as a coaching staff. Now we have to carve out time in practice to make sure that's even done right."
Starkville may even be without two-way senior player LaDorrious Pittman after the critical athlete was hurt in practice this week. Pittman is a threat for quarterback Princeton Jones in the passing game but more importantly has been able to secure the secondary at a safety position.
Warren Central, who will be honoring 18 seniors tonight, presents a more traditional attack without a running option at quarterback in 5-foot-10 senior Carlisle Koestler but have three players averaging more than 4.5 yards per carry. The Vikings have rushed for over 200 yards in four of their nine games this season.
"We understand the challenge in front of us and that has eased the worry about our kids looking forward to the playoff possibilities," Mitchell said. "It's all in front us to be taken. We couldn't ask for more of a opportunity when we started division play at in September at Columbus."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.