November 22, 2013 11:02:58 AM
STARKVILLE -- This trip to Batesville is a personal fight for the Starkville High School football players.
It has become that way because Yellow Jackets coach Jamie Mitchell has realized this week not very many people give his team a chance at 7 tonight to upset defending state champion South Panola in the Class 6A North State semifinals.
"Our tradition runs mighty deep here, too," Mitchell said. "Our kids not only think but expect to go in there and win the football game. We have the amount of talent needed, and now it's up to us to execute on a big stage. If we were playing the Dallas Cowboys, I'd expect my team to feel the same way, too."
Starkville (9-3) will try to become the first Mississippi high school team in two years to beat South Panola (12-1). The only losses coach Lance Pogue's team has suffered in that stretch came against Memphis (Tenn.) University School, Hoover (Ala.) High, and Bentonville (Ark.) High. This will be the only football playoff matchup between two defending state champions in the last decade in the state. Starkville won the Class 5A state title last season and moved back up to Class 6A after the Mississippi High School Activities Association's latest reclassification.
"We are looking forward to playing South Panola," Starkville senior quarterback Princeton Jones said. "How else do you know how good you really are until you're tested by the big boys? They don't come any bigger than us and South Panola."
Mitchell doesn't believe the game is close to being the most important one he has coached since he took over the program.
"Is it more critical than our state championship win, state championship game the year before that or the times we've played to get to Jackson? No," Mitchell said. "We've played on the big stage, and I think our kids will handle this well and be right there with South Panola the whole game."
South Panola will feature junior tailback Darrell Henderson, who has rushed for 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also has returned kickoffs and punts for touchdowns.
"We have to stop the run and get them in a third-and-long situation," Mitchell said.
South Panola senior quarterback Rip Kirk has completed 47.7 percent of his passes. His 102 completions have gone to 17 receivers.
Starkville views the underdog label as a personal attack after playing in back-to-back Class 5A state championship games.
"All we hear about is South Panola this and South Panola that," Starkville linebacker Taylor Johnston said. "We have good players here, great coaches here, and we're going up there to win and keep our season alive. We're not going up there to compete and put on a good show."
Junior pass rusher AJ Smith is expected to play for Starkville. Smith has battled numerous injuries in the past month. He has 39 tackles, three sacks, and a fumble recovery. The 220-pounder could be a key addition to defensive coordinator Brooks Oakley's 5-2-4 defense.
"The only question is the amount he can go, but he will play and hopefully be extremely effective in a game we desperately need him to be," Mitchell said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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