October 24, 2018 10:18:34 AM
Columbus High School picked up a minor victory off the field Tuesday morning.
After 10 seasons competing in Class 6A, the state's largest classification, Columbus will fall to Class 5A for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to realignment figures released Tuesday by the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA).
During what has been a tough first season for coach Eric Rice, his staff, and the Falcons, the silver lining has been the rumor Columbus would slide down in competition.
In each of the past two seasons, Columbus hasn't had enough athletes to play the state's most popular sport at its highest level.
Coach Randal Montgomery's final game in 2017 saw 54 players dress out for the Falcons. This season, Rice has a roster of around 60 players.
By comparison, region leader Horn Lake dressed 90 players for its game against Columbus. Traditional power Tupelo, the state's largest school, has 86 players listed on its roster.
The Falcons have struggled to have numbers, which means more players have to play both ways.
The MHSAA created a sixth class for the 2009 season. The Falcons have been in that top classification since its inception.
Some years, the Falcons have done more with less. Tony Stanford had back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2011 and 2012. Montgomery used present Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill to get to eight wins in 2015 and six wins in 2016.
Having continued long-term success has been elusive for the Falcons. Even with Hill -- arguably one of the program's all-time best players -- Columbus finished 6-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2016.
One could blame a lack of resources, a lack of bodies, or a lack of stability in the superintendent's office. The move to 5A won't solve all of the issues, but it will help.
Columbus most likely will be placed in Class 5A, Region 1 with rivals West Point and New Hope (moving up from Class 4A to Class 5A). Suddenly, two of the seven region road trips could be less than 15 minutes away, whereas the shortest trip in Class 6A, Region 1 is a one-hour drive to Tupelo.
West Point has ruled its region in the past three seasons. The Green Wave is 5-0 in region play and have won 25-straight games in the region dating back to the 2015 season.
While Columbus won't become West Point anytime soon, life will be much better with the possibility of playing Center Hill, Saltillo, and Grenada each year instead of Horn Lake, Tupelo, and South Panola.
And as has been discussed in this column space before, Columbus and New Hope need to play each other. The game will draw a huge gate. Plus, the teams have combined to win one game this season, so they need each other.
Columbus' non-region schedule also will have a new look. The contract with Vicksburg High ended this season. West Point likely will become a region game. The rivalry against Starkville appears to be in a holding pattern. Continuing to play Noxubee County also looks in doubt.
Rice and his administrators can make a fresh start and find a new way to start the season, as opposed to this year where loses to West Point, Noxubee County, and Starkville happened by a combined score of 162-24. Conventional wisdom tells us several other teams in North Mississippi would be interested in playing Columbus.
With 959 students, Columbus settles comfortably into Class 5A as the 10th largest school in that classification, and 42nd largest school overall. Columbus was the last Class 6A team when enrollment numbers were posted two years ago.
If Rice wishes to return for a second season, his task is to build numbers. The Falcons need a shot of enthusiasm. The images of Hill playing in front of packed stadiums have faded. The build will be slow, but it needs to be approached in the right fashion and with all hands on board.
This season, Columbus has played hard, disciplined football, but it has been outmanned on several occasions.
While these realignment numbers won't change this team's plight against South Panola on Friday or against Hernando next Friday, it's a good sign help is on the way.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.