By Myra Bean
BATESVILLE – It’s the big day of all days for the No. 8 nationally ranked South Panola football team.
USA Today released the new poll Tuesday and the Tigers had moved up a spot going into tonight’s 5A State Championship game.
The undefeated Tigers (14-0) will be facing the highly underrated Ocean Springs Greyhounds (12-1) to defend their 5A state championship title. The Tigers will be the home team, since the north teams are home in even number years. South Panola will sit on the pressbox side (east side) of the stadium.
Since South Panola is the home team, they will be in the blue uniform.
This will be South Panola’s seventh trip to the big game. South Panola is experienced in this game and hold three golden balls to prove it.
This season the Tigers also return to the game with some seasoned players.
Leading the Tigers is returning quarterback Derek Pegues who has rushed for 1,415 yards this season and scored 21 touchdowns on offense and defense. Following Pegues is Germichael Sanford who sat out the North Half game but is ready to go this week, according to Tiger head coach Ricky Woods.
Germichael Sanford has 1,360 rushing yards to his credit and 22 touchdowns, rushing and passing.
One of the backbones of the offense is fullback Jeramie Griffin who can get in there and get some yards and scores for the Tigers. He has 751 rushing yards, 14 passing yards and eight touchdowns for the season.
Backup tailback Darrius "Tigg" Barksdale has seen plenty of playing time this year and can step in at any time for the Tigers. He has 595 yards and five touchdowns this season. He started last week when Germichael Sanford was out with a knee injury.
Also on offense is backup quarterback Karreem "Moody" Carr whose Moody sweep has become famous in Panola County for garnering yards and touchdowns. He has 516 yards and four touchdowns.
The other backup tailback Rickey Sanford has 201 yards and two touchdowns, followed by Carlos Robinson with 139 yards and three touchdowns.
In receiving, Travis Sanford leads with 19 catches, 348 yards and five touchdowns. Jeremy Williams has 96 yards on seven catches and Luke Kiihnl, also the holder, has 45 yards on four receptions.
Kicker Russ Belk is responsible for 72 of the points for the Tigers this year.
The Tigers will have to depend heavily on these big guns to move the ball down the field and score on the tough Greyhound defense.
"We have to move the ball," Woods said. "No turnovers. We are challenging our offense, too, because this is one of the best defenses we’ve played.
"It’s going to take a complete game on offense, defense, special teams," Woods added. "Everybody’s going to have to play their best game to win."
The team is going through its regular practice routine this week, according to Woods. They are practicing exactly the same as usual with no changes.
Since Woods describes Ocean Springs as being "very talented," "well-coached" and "underrated," he has been telling his players everybody will just have to play his position.
"It’s a challenge on both sides of the ball. It’s not just offense. It’s not just defense or special teams," Woods said.
"We have been telling the kids all this week just play your best," he added. "We can’t give up the big play."
The offensive linemen are as always the unsung heroes of the football team. The Tiger line is coached by Michael Fair. Fair said the line is very much aware of what its duties are and is ready to step up to the challenge.
Ocean Springs will bring a tough defense to the game, according to Fair. He said the defensive line and the linebackers are real good athletes.
"We are going to have to get on them and stay on our blocks and give our running backs a hole and a chance to score," Fair said. "With the good running backs we have, all they need is a little crack."
Fair praised the offensive line for working hard the past few weeks and said they had a good week of practice.
Making up the offensive line are Josh Boren, Scott Honnoll, Hunter Bailey, Cameron Wagner, Justin Davis and Willie Oliver.
"It will be a tough game," Fair said. "It will be a hard fought game. It’s going to be one where we win in the trenches. We are going to try to run the football on them. I think if we run the football on them, we will have some success."
"The two best teams in the state are about to play and it should be like that," Woods said.
Coming off a 1-10, 2002 season and a 7-5, 2003 season, the Greyhounds were not given the benefit of the doubt this year. They did break into the top 20 of the Associated Press Polls but not the top 10.
Ocean Springs has a real "unorthodox" offensive scheme, according to Woods.
"The offense is different," he said. "To say the least, their wings [backs] are very good runners."
The Greyhounds use two tailbacks at the wing position, No. 82, Andre Watson and Richard Dickson.
They are both ex-quarterbacks and can throw the ball really well, according to Woods.
"They throw halfback passes and reverse passes, then we have to stop the run," Woods added.
Woods said following the North Half defeat of Clinton, he did not know anything about Ocean Springs. The coaches and players have used last weekend and this week to watch tapes of the team and become very familiar with the Greyhounds.
"Yes, it will be a challenge to our defense to shut these guys down because nobody has," Woods said. "They have scored a bunch of points and nobody’s stopped them yet. We have to challenge our defense to stop them."
According to Greyhounds’ assistant coach Jody Webb, the school held a pep rally Thursday and said "the roof almost came off the building."
The Greyhounds are making their debut in the big game.
"We are very excited," Webb added.
‘Defense wins championships’ is a quote that rings loud and true down through the years.
Ocean Springs has scored 474 points this year, averaging 36.46 per game. They have shutout two teams and held four other teams to seven points and under. They Greyhounds have allowed 187 points, 14.38 per game.
Gulfport was the only team to defeat Oceans Springs, 49-35.
The Tigers have scored 530 points this year, 37.86 per game and given up 129 points, 9.21 per game.
They have had one shutout and five other teams were held to seven points or less. The most any team scored on the Tigers was 16 points.
The Tigers have scored at least 21 points in every game.
The Tiger defense has been the mainstay of the Tiger success the last few years. Though only two starters returned this year, they have been leaders in building up the defense to dominate all comers.
Players selected as Dandy Dozen players this year have made the Tiger team shine: Derek Pegues, Travis Sanford and John Jerry.
Jerry with his 6’6", 320 plus pound frame leads the defensive line. Along with Jerry are Santarious Armstead, Teddy Flowers, Brandon Burnett and Justin Harris. Linebackers Cedric Wright, Leroy Diggs and Marcus Johnson will head up the attack from those areas.
In the secondary the defensive backs of Pegues, Sanford and Kerry Hoskins have pulled down 16 total interceptions this season.
Cedric Wright said the team is taking this game very seriously.
"It will be a big game," Wright said. "We are going to play it like we are supposed to. We practiced hard to make sure we won’t make any mistakes Friday."
The defense probably has the biggest job of all tonight: containing the wingbacks. How will they do this?
"We plan on tackling them," Woods said. "Everybody has to play his position and tackle him when he gets there."
If a player gets out of position, he could have a play run against him that will hurt, according to Woods.
"They are going to make some plays on us because they have some plays that really force you to come up and they throw behind you," Woods said. "We just don’t want to give up the big play. When you throw, three things can happen. Two of them are bad."
Though Woods would not reveal any specific gameplans, he did say defensive coordinator Willis Wright and his defensive coaching staff have a plan.
"They’ve got a great plan, I think," Woods said. "The kids just have to execute it."
Coaching the defensive backs is Trenell Edwards. He agreed this is a big game, but "we will treat it like it is another game which it is. It is No. 15," Edwards said.
Edwards dittoed Woods’ remarks about staying in their zones.
"We can’t be too quick to run up against the run because for every run play they have, they do have a throwing play also," Edwards said. "We have to be ready to defend against that.
"I think if my guys do the job that we are supposed to do on defense, we will have a chance to win," Edwards added.
The defense knows it has to shine in order for the Tigers to pull off the win.
"You know you have to win this last one to win it all," Edwards said. "That’s what we are shooting for – to win it all."
Planning to get the team to the championship game intact is the manager staff. Head manager Brandon Oliver said, "The managers will have to work hard to keep Coach Woods from getting frustrated. We have to go out, work hard, and make sure we have everything on the field that we need. We also have to make sure that we leave nothing at home because if we do, Coach Woods will be upset."
South Panola School District will observe a Tuesday short day schedule in order to allow anyone who wants to attend the game without rushing to Jackson. The football team will observe the regular Tuesday schedule and load up and leave around 12:30 p.m. They will eat at the Lone Star from 3 to 4 p.m. Afterwards, the players will watch the end of the 1A game between Mize and Weir.
"Then we will start taping and get ready to play," Woods said.
Even though this is the third championship game Woods will coach South Panola in, he said each championship game is special.
Woods also holds rings from two 2A championships when he coached at Ackerman in 1997 and 2001.
"It’s just a privilege to play in any of them. I can never say one is better than the other one. All of them are a real high priority in all the coaches’ lives and all the kids’ lives. They’re all going to be really, really important."
Again Woods reiterated how much the community support means to the team. He commended the community on its support of all athletic activities and not just to football.
"This is an athletic town. The kids know it. The fans are why the kids play. They are real positive with them. I appreciate the positive comments they have for the kids. Not all communities are positive like that," Woods said.
For the fans who cannot make the trip to Jackson for any reason, local radio station WBLE will broadcast live from Jackson on 100.5 FM with George Carlson calling the play-by-play. Kenny Hopper and Steve Wingert will assist for up-to-the-minute statistics.
Also all the state championship games will be televised on Mississippi Public Television, in this area Channel 18. Cable and satellite customers will probably not be able to pick up the broadcast.
Kickoff of the game is 7:30 p.m.