October 28, 2020 7:01:07 PM
STARKVILLE -- Outside the Starkville Academy field house on Wednesday afternoon, the hurdles sit in a row, soaking slowly in the steady rain.
They form an unintentional -- yet potent -- metaphor for what the Volunteers' football team is about to face.
Starkville Academy's first playoff hurdle of the 2020 season is Friday against Simpson County Academy, and unlike last season, when the Vols rode the road all the way to the MAIS Class 5A championship game, they'll open at home.
And while three comebacks led to exciting road wins over Magnolia Heights, Lamar School and Adams County Christian last season, Starkville Academy coach Chase Nicholson said his team can't afford to bank on the same thing happening to make a run this year.
"The end of the road is the same, but the path to get there will be different," Nicholson said. "That's our goal: to find the right path. It's not going to be last year's path. We have to find our own path, and sometimes we can't see it in front of us, but if we continue to work hard, the path will reveal itself."
So far, the path to victory for the Vols this year has been a heavy dose of senior running back CJ Jackson, who has gone over 200 yards in nearly every game and owns a majority of Starkville Academy's touchdowns to boot. But Nicholson said the Cougars (4-6) employ a similar scheme and will deploy it against the Vols on Friday.
"They know what they like to do, and they're going to do it," the coach said. "They just want to try to do it better than anybody else."
Senior outside linebacker Colby Allen, Starkville Academy's leading tackler, said that puts a premium on rush defense come Friday night. Jackson isn't likely to be bottled up, but the Vols hope to curtail Cougars quarterback Brentley Berry and running back Carter Cockrell.
"If we stop the run, I think we'll be OK," Allen said.
Starkville Academy has had an extra week to prepare for the game after last week's home regular-season finale against Jackson Academy was called off due to COVID-19 concerns with the home school. With a couple of students waiting on test results, Nicholson said Starkville Academy sent its football players home and worked with the Raiders to cancel the game. Ultimately, there was no outbreak of the virus, but the Vols would rather be safe than sorry, Nicholson said.
"We wouldn't have made the decision if we didn't think it was in the best interest of the kids at our school," he said.
Instead, the break gave Starkville Academy a chance to rest, heal bumps and bruises and renew its focus for its first-round game. Nicholson said the Vols weren't sure until Saturday morning who they'd be playing, but they've homed in on the Cougars with renewed fervor.
"I think it gives us more time and makes us hungrier to play football -- kind of like the summer did," Allen said, referencing the delayed start to offseason workouts because of the virus.
Both he and Nicholson acknowledged the Vols would face rival Heritage Academy for the fourth time in two seasons should they win this week, but neither is concerned about the potential matchup yet.
"We know it's down the road, but you can't worry about that today," Nicholson said. "You can only worry about Simpson."
The Volunteers have been doing just that, and with Friday night's matchup lurking just ahead, they're prepared to clear the first hurdle they'll face.
"We're ready to go," Allen said. "We've been working hard all year. This is what we worked for."
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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