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Renewal of Columbus-Starkville rivalry good for both sides

 

Columbus High School football coach Randal Montgomery and Starkville High coach Chris Jones will renew the rivalry between their schools at 7 p.m. Friday.

Columbus High School football coach Randal Montgomery and Starkville High coach Chris Jones will renew the rivalry between their schools at 7 p.m. Friday. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch  Buy this photo.

 

Scott Walters

 

 

The on-again, off-again rivalry will be on again Friday night when the Columbus High School football team takes on Starkville at 7 p.m. Friday. 

 

The teams have had a hard time finding a spot for each other on their schedules when they're not playing a region game. 

 

However, common sense has prevailed and the teams will renew a rivalry that saw Starkville win 35-13 in 2013 and 43-0 in 2014. Those games were played as rivals in Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2. 

 

The rivalry will be renewed with Columbus in Region 1 and Starkville in Region 2. 

 

It's a good game at the gate and a good matchup for both communities. Due to the current makeup of both teams, Starkville will be the favorite. However, both schools will benefit from the game. 

 

Diving deeper you find an intriguing coaching matchup between two of the state's rising stars -- Columbus fourth-year head coach Randal Montgomery and Starkville first-year head coach Chris Jones. 

 

Both men are early in their professional careers. Both have a chance to be ultra-successful on the high school level or to have a chance to parlay high school success into a promising junior or senior college coaching career. 

 

Each coach made the jump from Class 3A to Class 6A. That is the typical first step when growing a coaching career. 

 

At Hazlehurst High, Montgomery won 43 games in three seasons. He coached in the state championship game all three seasons, winning the 2012 championship. 

 

The challenge of making Columbus a contender in 6A might be one of the state's most difficult tasks. In 24 seasons of varsity ball, the Falcons boast six playoff appearances. Of that total, one-third belongs to Montgomery. 

 

"You have to build from the ground up," Montgomery said. "It takes patience. You start with the seventh grade. You have to have six years of buy-in. The players have to know the expectations of the program." 

 

Columbus won 14 games in the last two seasons combined. A large part of that success was due to Kylin Hill, the dynamic running back who rushed for 4,000 yards in his prep career, who made his Mississippi State debut Saturday. 

 

Montgomery may never coach another player with the abilities of Hill. However, in Class 6A, you have a greater opportunity to do so. 

 

"The biggest thing is depth," Montgomery said. "In Class 3A, so many players go both ways. You find your best 14 or 15 players and you put them out there. That is really something you have a hard time making an adjustment. You have to get used to 11 offensive players, 11 defensive players. That has been the biggest challenge, growing the program, getting the word out and making this a program players want to be part of." 

 

Columbus dressed 84 players last season. That group included 21 seniors. The roster for Friday night lists 55 Falcons. That is a challenging number to win with in Class 6A. 

 

However, the senior class is small. Montgomery believes a large group of sophomores will blend with a large group of freshmen to form a special team in 2018. 

 

The good news for Columbus fans is Montgomery is still at the school. There were several big-name schools with openings this past season. One would not feel bad if Montgomery used the success Hill helped generate to find a another coaching position. 

 

However, Montgomery's decision to stay at Columbus High indicates he is in for the long haul. His choice to stay at the school this season is an indication he wants to see a talented group of two-year junior high players make it to the finish line of their varsity careers. 

 

Columbus has made back-to-back playoff appearances under Montgomery. That has only happened one other time. 

 

If the youthful Falcons can find any offense, a school-record third-straight berth should be in the offing. 

 

Jones is going through a similar situation at Starkville. He won 46 games in a four-year coaching career at Kemper County. The Wildcats finished 15-1 last season and won the MHSAA Class 3A State championship. The loss was a 26-12 setback to Montgomery-coached Columbus in the season opener. The coaches always have been friends and that led to their teams playing each other in 2015 and 2016. Columbus won the other meeting, 49-27. 

 

Starkville also is young in several spots and pointing toward some big things in 2018 and 2019. However, Class 6A is wide open, so there is no reason this team should be counted out this year. 

 

"You want to coach in 6A," Jones said. "You want to coach in the big games and coach in the big stadiums. It's exciting and rewarding every day. There is a lot of tradition here. You want to build on that." 

 

Jamie Mitchell led Starkville to the 2012 state championship. Ricky Woods did the same in 2015. 

 

When done right, the Starkville job can be one of the best in the state. Jones also will emphasize the importance of the junior high program to helping establish a foundation for the varsity program. 

 

"The biggest challenge is to keep everything going across the board," Jones said. "You set a standard and then you expect everyone in your program to be held accountable for meeting that standard." 

 

Jones has watched what Montgomery has done at Columbus. He has faced the same challenges and reaped the same rewards after jumping to the state's biggest stage for high school football. 

 

The friends meet as coaching rivals again Friday night. It won't decide a state championship or a playoff berth. 

 

For the short term, it is good for both communities to see the rivalry resumed. For the long term, it is good for both communities that these men are in charge. 

 

Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at swalters@cdispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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