| By Myra Bean
The pressure to break the state’s longest winning streak is off the back of South Panola Tiger head coach Ricky Woods, but as it goes with football another goal is ready to take its place.
According to senior linebacker and national recruit, Chris Strong, the Tigers are going for 60 straight wins and and their fourth straight 5A state championship this season.
South Panola broke the record of 51 with a 42-0 shutout win over Columbus Friday night.
Had it not been for a 21-14 loss to Wayne County in the 2002 state championship, these goals would have already been fulfilled by South Panola. In Woods five year stint at South Panola, that is the only blemish in an otherwise perfect record of 66-1.
Woods sat down to a special interview about his years at South Panola and the situation in which he finds himself now.
He said he and his wife, Susan, came here for him to coach the football team, but they have had a rewarding experience.
"Not only is the football great, the community is the best community we have ever lived in," Woods said. "We really enjoy it. It has been exciting to be around the coaches, the kids, the community, having the success we’ve had. It is sort of a credit to the community itself because this is where our children we coach come from, and they should be very proud. I am proud of our young men, and the community should be proud of them."
And vice versa to that statement, Woods said.
"Our children and our coaching staff are proud of our community," he added.
Under Woods tutelage, the football team has literally spoiled the Batesville and South Panola community. Woods laughed at that question, and said "I guess so."
Wins are expected and close wins are not handled too well by the supporting public. Case in point was the recent 12-7 Tiger victory over Olive Branch. Also the close wins over Clarksdale and Moss Point to start the season had people questioning the strength of the Tiger team.
Nevertheless, the Tigers have met every challenge head-on and brought their adoring fans the victories they expect.
This setting the state record thing was something Woods said you never speculate on. There are many different aspects of coaching the team he had to look before he could he even think of setting such lofty goals.
One thing to take into consideration was the discipline factor of the players, injuries that can result in a lost season for players and how well the team and the coaches would mesh together.
"You never speculate," Woods said. "It’s hard to speculate because everything’s got to fit. You have so many areas you have to look at to hold and piece everything together.
"It worked out really good," he added in the Wednesday, October 4 interview. "I had no speculation that we would be 51-0 or 65-1 at this point. I don’t think anybody else did either. I don’t think I am the only one either."
Woods said it is a credit to the kids to keep playing hard and working hard in the offseason to continue to win.
Woods looked back over the four teams which have contributed to this record setting event.
2003 South Panola Tigers
"The 2003 team was the most talented team I had ever seen," Woods said. "They were very, very talented. We were senior-laden. We had 21 seniors on this team. We were just really, really good at every position. A lot of great talent. A lot of physical players. A lot of these guys are playing on Saturdays."
The 2003 team was quarterbacked by junior Derek Pegues at the time and flanked by tailback Marcus Griffin. The defense was led by Jamarca Sanford, Demario Bobo, Peria Jerry and John Jerry. All of these players are playing Division 1 football now, except for Griffin.
2004 South Panola Tigers
The 2004 team lost 18 starters to graduation. That was Derek Pegues’, John Jerry’s and Travis Sanford’s senior year, the three Dandy Dozen players so chosen by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson.
"We regrouped and had a tremendous year," Woods said. "That was the year that surprised everybody. The only people it did not surprise was our players."
Woods repeated a story he heard Derek Pegues tell.
"When we first started someone asked him what kind of season he think we were going to have," Woods remembered smiling. "He said we are fixing to win 15 and go 44-1. They sort of took it upon themselves to be good leaders, to lead the pack."
2005 South Panola Tigers
Then the next year we lost 12 good players.
"In Josh Boren’s senior year, we had a lot of good players," he said. "We only had two to sign division 1, Kerry Hoskins and Rodney Gray. The rest were junior college players. They were a bunch of good players that played together so well."
Woods said the 2005 team probably improved more from the beginning of the season to the end than any team that he had ever coached.
2006 South Panola Tigers
"This year this team here is 6-0 and we could have been 3-3," Woods said. "We have had three really good games. They battled back and battled back. They just wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t give up.
"All of these teams won’t quit, won’t give up," Woods added. "They are not going to give up anything easy. They are playing to win. I think good dedication from all of them in the offseason is what makes our team."
South Panola claims two Dandy Dozen players this year in linebacker Chris Strong and fullback/tailback Jeramie Griffin. Strong was just named to the U.S. Army All-American team which will play in San Antonio, Texas, January 6 at the Alamodome.
Pegues also played in this game his senior year.
Woods explained that when the season starts they do not practice the team that long because the players give out.
"The later the year goes you have to cut back on your practice time to save their legs for the latter part of the season," he said.
If anyone wanted to know the secret to the South Panola Tiger success, Woods said the key is the off season program and working "really, really hard."
Since Woods took over in 2002, the coaching staff has remained the same, except Ron Oakes. He left after the second year.
"There haven’t been any changes," Woods said. "You have stability in the coaching staff which is crucial to have this record.
"Because if you have coaching changes, regularly, they have to get to know the kids and different coaching techniques, different philosophies and different personalities," Woods added. "If you can just keep it the same, if you have a good staff, you are a lot better. We are fortunate to have a very good coaching staff."
Assistant coaches to Woods include Willis Wright, assistant head coach/defensive coordinator; Michael Fair, offensive line coach; Arnie Oakes, tight ends; Lucian King, defensive ends; Mark Weaver, defensive tackles; Trenell Edwards, defensive back/wide receivers; John Davis, running backs/B-team.
The junior high coaches on the sideline include Pete Robertson, Robert Lightsey and ninth grade coach Gary Sims.
The team through the four years of high school go through a lot of turnover, excluding graduation.
The 2006 team started with almost 70 players in the ninth grade and only 12 seniors remain.
"That’s a pretty big turnover," Woods said. "We are usually playing with 20 or less in the senior class and we usually have 60 to 70 in ninth grade. A lot of them did not want to go through with it."
South Panola Administration
"We have a lot of support with our administration," Woods said. "We started off with Dr. C.L. Stevenson and Dr. Del Phillips. Now we have Dr. Keith Shaffer and Dr. Gearl Loden. We have been fortunate all four of these men really contribute to the athletic program here. They are really interested and really behind us here."
Woods also made special mention of the high school administration including assistant principals Mrs. Ruth Ball, Mrs. Kaye Smythe, Mr. Billy Smith and Mr. Leslie Busby.
"These are people you don’t hear a lot about, but it all starts with them. Then it filters to your teachers. We have a good teaching staff up here.
"We have our administrators behind us," Woods added. "You’ve got your teachers behind you. You’ve got your community behind you. You’ve got your student body behind you.
"It’s sort of hard not to play hard," he said. "It’s good pressure because everybody wants you to win, but you’ve also got their support.
"Mentally, the children need it ," Woods said, "and the coaching staff needs it."
With the win against Columbus, Woods logged his 196th career win in 18 seasons.