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SP v Olive Branch

Tigers play for 6th straight north half champ title

Make no mistake. South Panola and Olive Branch know what’s at stake tonight: a chance to play in the 2007 5A State Championship.

That is huge for both teams.

Olive Branch is trying to earn it’s first ever trip to the “Big House,” as Veterans Memorial Stadium has become known.

South Panola is trying to return for a number of reasons.

The first being an unprecedented fifth straight state championship title. Next, this would be head coach Lance Pogue’s first trip with South Panola.

A lot is riding on the outcome of this game. Both teams faced difficult challenges last week. South Panola was one step behind Tupelo most of the game until the last quarter. Olive Branch and Starkville took it one step further into overtime.

Pogue talked about the slow start the team has experienced this year in the first half of some games.

“We have talked about it and tried to practice that some,” he said. “Ideally, we want to get off to a good start because that helps us. We have been a second half team all year. We can draw it up on paper. We would like to start fast and finish strong.”

In the first matchup between Starkville and Olive Branch, Starkville won 14-7. It was payback time as Olive Branch defeated Starkville 14-13 in overtime on a blocked extra point.

These two teams have met five times in the last three years and South Panola has emerged the victor each time.

“I think the bottom line is it will boil down to who will play the best defense and who holds onto the ball,” Pogue said. “Turnovers can beat you. We are putting emphasis on taking care of the football and trying to play great defense. I think that’s going to be the big key to the whole game.”

In the last meeting between the two teams, South Panola held Olive Branch 17-3, but the Tigers gave up 21 points to Tupelo last week.

Tupelo honed in on one of the Tigers’ strength in senior running back Darius “Tig” Barksdale, who has already received invitations to play in two postseason All-Star games, the Alabama/Mississippi All-Star Classic and the U.S. Army All-American game.

That focus on Barksdale allowed other areas of the Tiger offense to shine. Junior quarterback David Renfroe threw three touchdown passes to Xavier Lee for two touchdowns and offensive lineman Jemarcus Hardrick. Also, junior linebacker David Conner took the snap on a fourth and two fake punt attempt and turned it into a touchdown for 43 yards.

Barksdale did not play in the first game between these two teams in October. Pogue is glad to have that dimension in tonight’s game.

“He is capable of scoring every time he gets it,” Pogue said. “He gives us an extra gear. Tig has had a great year running the ball.”

Barksdale has almost 2,200 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns on the season.

“We had to play without him the first time and our kids played really hard,” Pogue said. “Nicholas Parker stepped in and filled in big. Tig just kind of brings another dimension just from an athletic standpoint. He brings a little bit to the table extra for us defensively, too. Any time you have a guy of his ability going into the game, you have to feel good about that.”

This versatile Tiger team has made it possible for the Tigers to survive to play in the North State Championship game. South Panola has played for the state championship nine times: 1993, ’96, ’97, ’98, 2002, ’03, ’04, ’05 and ’06. They have walked away with the last four trophies in addition to the 1993 and 1998 trophies.

National attention is on this game as the Tigers are playing for their 74th consecutive win. South Panola holds the longest active win streak in the nation of 73 games. National polls rank the tigers from third to 11th in the nation. Sports Illustrated ranks South Panola at No. 3, USA Today at 11 and National Prep Poll at No. 6.

As both teams know, getting to the state championship game is a not a task for the weak or the faint of heart. During this three year bout, South Panola and Olive Branch have gone through coaching changes. In spite of or because of this, both teams seem to thrive and get stronger each year.

That trickles down into the 1-5A as the other six teams in the region get stronger because they know they have to face these two teams sometimes in the regular season. In the cases of Starkville and Tupelo, they had to face one of them twice. The teams in 1-5A eliminated 2-5A competition in the first round of the playoffs this year which led to the district teams meeting in rematches last Friday.

But is anyone really surprised to see Olive Branch and South Panola ready to bang heads again in the north half championship?

Pogue compared Tupelo and Olive Branch and said the two teams are similar defensively.

“Olive Branch could be a little better defensively,” he said. “They have Marlon Walls, great player, transferred from out of Tennessee, SEC caliber player; (Sylvester) Hemphill and both of their linebackers.”

Just looking at this year, Olive Branch is the only team to hold South Panola under 20 points.

“We are real excited about it,” Pogue said. “We have had a good week. We have had a good season. It boils down to the north half. We are happy to be in it. Olive Branch has a good team. It will be a big time game.”

There have been some excitement in the area as Ole Miss named a new head coach in Houston Nutt Wednesday, formerly of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Ole Miss has four players from Panola County on the team and a few more who verbally committed to play for Ole Miss.

Pogue said the kids are really excited about Nutt as coach.

“They (players) have done some interviews with some of the recruiting sites, Rivals, Scout,” Pogue said. “I kind of hear bits and pieces. Our guys seem to be really, really excited about the commitment Ole Miss made to bring a guy of that caliber. It kind of tells of the interest in Ole Miss football that the administration wants a guy who has been in the SEC because they want to be a player in the SEC. Obviously they made that commitment.”

Kickoff for tonight’s game is 7 p.m. Tickets will be sold at the high school for $7 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Ticket booths opens at 6 p.m.