March 2, 2010 10:19:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Four empty state tournament trips to Jackson since 2000 have created high expectations and an ever-present shadow behind Starkville High School''s boys basketball team.
Starkville players hear the nay-sayers in the classroom and in the community.
"It''ll stop in Jackson" and "You guys will choke when you get to Jackson" get tossed around as if the Yellow Jackets have no support from the people who show up and watch them dunk, throw alley oops off the backboard, and, lest not forget, win at home.
One might think the winningest Starkville High School athletic program the past five years would get a little more love heading into Wednesday''s Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A State Tournament against last year''s Class 5A champion Biloxi High School.
"It''s crazy, you know, when it shouldn''t be," Starkville senior guard Edward Townsel said. "People are going to say what they have to say. I''ve heard people don''t think we can make it any farther without Jacolby (Mobley). Then, ''we can''t win the big game.'' It''s crazy."
Still, there''s no erasing the memories of last year''s shock North State loss at home to Greenville Weston.
Then, there''s the 2008 controversy over Latavious Williams'' last-second shot being ruled no-good at the horn in a 57-55 loss to Jackson Provine.
The last two seasons haven''t been easy for the Jackets, which magnifies expectations from their 27-2 record and roll through the North State tournament by beating Vicksburg and Greenville Weston.
Plus, Starkville enters Wednesday with wins this year against Greenville Weston and Meridian, the other two teams in the Class 6A Final Four.
All of that considered, the players know they''ve set the bar higher than where it stood at the beginning of the season. That suits the Jackets just fine, as they''d rather being playing their best basketball with two games left for glory.
"This team hasn''t lost a lot of games, but we''ve had our ups and downs, trust me," Starkville coach Greg Carter said. "But, through all of that, the team has hit stride at the perfect time. You can tell because everyone is having fun playing and they have a certain confidence about them. It''s really big because we''re so young.
"Our two losses kind of let the air out, but ever since those we''ve played our best basketball."
Carter said he likens the team to his 2004 squad that had just two returning starters, which is similar to this year''s situation with Townsel and Southern Miss signee Rashad Perkins being the only two returning starters.
What Carter hopes differs from 2004 to this season is the capture of Starkville''s first state title under his watch. This year marks Carter''s fifth state qualifier and first since 2008,
"We''ve come up short in the past," Carter said. "I know a couple of years we went down there and couldn''t make a shot. Couple of years ago, we go down, get a last second turnover, make the shot at the end but they didn''t count it. Different things have happened for whatever reason, but this is a different team and another opportunity."
Carter has got to feel good about his chances this season with Biloxi standing in the way of a rematch against one of two teams the Jackets have beaten this season. Plus, Biloxi''s up-tempo running game led by guards Jeremiah Dunnings (17.7 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Corey Jackson (10 ppg, 7.2 rpg) suits Starkville''s fast-break nature
The Jackets have no injury concerns or questions about depth as Carter has three reliable sophomores, who play a variety of roles, off the bench.
It seems like the stars are aligned to get the job done, but only if the Jackets start the game in a dominate mind frame, Perkins said.
"It''s all about knowing what we have to do from the jump and just doing it," Carter said. "That''s what we''ve done lately instead of waiting around early in the game. We used to be a second half team, but in the last couple of games we''ve picked it up a lot.
"Last time we were down there, we waited too long in the game to really start playing and build a point spread. This year, we''re just focusing on getting as many points as we can and as fast as possible. If you do that and everything''s going right for you, it''s going to discourage other teams and other parts of their game are going to lack."
There''s fuel to the Jackets'' fire for a state title through all the doubt cast on their bid for a state title. And with a coach who''s gunning for his first trophy in five tries, Townsel believes there''s too much in their favor to fail.
"We take a whole lot of pride in playing for coach Carter," Townsel said. "He''s just as hungry as we are. That''s been the first thing to mind ever since the playoffs started: The gold ball hadn''t been here. Everybody''s saying ''as soon as we get to Jackson we lose.'' We need to take all of that to Jackson, to the floor and give it our all."
Should the Jackets raise the title trophy on Saturday, Townsel doesn''t plan to say a word when he gets back to class.
"You know me, I''m just coming back to class with a big smile on my face," he said.
1. Player of Week: Rogers helps fuel success for Columbus Lady Falcons HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. New Hope rolls past West Point to complete region play HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
3. MSU begins homestand by facing Arkansas COLLEGE SPORTS