August 26, 2014 4:43:23 PM
Starkville Academy football coach Jeff Terrill has a coaching career which spans four decades.
Thus, he has a pretty good pulse about his team even before a season starts.
After a pair of losing seasons, the Volunteers felt pretty strong they could return to the upper echelon in Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II play this season.
If Friday night is any indication, Starkville Academy could indeed be on its way.
Terrill's fifth squad at the academy opened the season with a 42-21 win over the defending MAIS Class AAA, Division II state champions Lamar School.
"Lamar is a good, solid team," Terrill said. "They have been predicted high with a lot of preseason accolades. Your players always know the strength of your opponent. To be able to open the season with a win like that should do wonders for our team."
Starkville Academy has 17 seniors on its 33-player roster. The Volunteers return as many as seven starters on offense and in some cases nine starters on defense.
To say that this team has pointed to this season for quite some time would be a huge understatement.
"Really, these kids have been in need of some confidence," Terrill said. "A bunch of these players have played together as sophomores and as juniors as well. They are a tight-knit bunch. They work together and they stick together. They genuinely enjoy one another. Football is all about teamwork. You have to carry about your fellow brother you are going to battle with each Friday night. I have really enjoyed coaching this team because of the attitude they have."
Terrill inherited a program in massive need of confidence prior to the 2010 season. After a lengthy career in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges, Terrill found a group of Volunteers needing some direction.
Prior to his arrival, Starkville Academy was winless. His first team won three games, while trying to learn how to play football the right way.
In 2011, another senior-dominated squad won 10 games and advanced to the state championship game for the first time since 2005. While the Volunteers fell to Greenville Washington in that finale, it was proof that Terrill had the program headed in the right direction.
Since then, the Volunteers have followed with a 5-7 season in 2012 and a 4-7 season in 2013. Starkville Academy lost in the opening round of the playoffs in 2012 but failed to qualify in 2013.
Still, there were flashes that this team was beginning to put it together. However, the Volunteers were still learning how to build on success and how to handle adversity.
"The biggest thing about the win Friday night was the fact that when Lamar got it to seven points (28-21 in third quarter), we responded," Terrill said. "The kids dug deep and found a way to keep battling. Lamar had all of the momentum. Instead of giving in, we kept working hard. For the first time in a while, we faced true adversity and had a really great response. That is huge for us."
On defense, Starkville Academy forced three turnovers and had four total stops with Lamar in the red zone. That is marked improvement from a year ago when Lamar posted a 35-3 victory in the season opener for both teams.
Friday night, Starkville Academy scored on the game's opening possession with junior quarterback Houston Clark looking like a seasoned veteran. After scoring on the team's initial possession, the Starkville Academy defense responded with the first of multiple huge stops in the game. Colt Chrestman had a big pass break-up on fourth-and-goal keeping Lamar off the scoreboard. The Volunteers used that momentum to build an early 21-0 lead.
"We have a lot more experience on the field this year," Terrill said. "That is the biggest thing in high school football. Who has the experience? Who can avoid injuries? Who does not turn the ball over? It was a first game so both us and Lamar made some mistakes that you hope you won't make later on in the season. However, you see a lot different team on the field when you are playing with so many seniors."
In the preseason some of the veteran Starkville Academy lineman talked about practice being fun again. They talked about a team not having to learn fundamentals. They talked about a team focused on a particular opponent, instead of worrying about how to line up and which formation meant what.
However, the psyche had been bruised by a tough stretch of games from the last two seasons. Several of the Volunteers also expressed a desire to snap a two-game series losing streak to arch-rival Heritage Academy.
Perhaps now is the time for Starkville Academy to right those wrongs and show that 2011 was not a fluke. Instead, it was merely the turning point of a program ready to compete on an annual basis.
The next opponent is a road trip to East Rankin Academy. This group of Patriots opened the season with a 42-7 win over Central Hinds Academy.
Starkville Academy won last season's meeting, 28-7. However, a 2-0 start should not be taken lightly and would be huge since the Volunteers never enjoyed back-to-back wins during the 2013 season and did it only once in 2012.
"This team is real excited right now," Terrill said. "You don't win any championships in the first game of the season. However, you can get positive reinforcement that everything that you have done during the offseason has paid off. It was a huge win for us. Now, the challenge is to make sure we build on it."
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for The Dispatch. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
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