By Myra Bean
In 2002 under former coach Ricky Woods, the South Panola Tiger fans were hoping just for a winning season and a shot to play in the playoffs towork themselves back from a 5-6 2001 season. The fans were kind of afraid to hope for the glory years of 1996, 97 and 98 of 14-1 seasons. No one would even voice out loud the possibility 15-0 season like 1993.
Eighty-nine games, 74 straight wins and a new head coach in Lance Pogue later, a loss would be the epitome of recession times 20.
Pogue looked back on this year and talked about the journey in the “Drive for 5 for 75.”
Pogue has been to the state championship game once with Eupora in 2002 but his team was not successful.
“This season has been very, very rewarding,” Pogue said. “We are 14-0 and have an opportunity to play for the state championship. We are really proud of our accomplishments but we haven’t finished the job. Our goal is to win the state championship. That’s our focus this week.”
The game is all about watching the players perform to the best of their abilities. South Panola is led by a host of seniors and juniors who have and are making names for themselves in the gridiron world.
One of the most popular players is senior running back/defensive back Darius “Tig” Barksdale who is just 108 yards away from breaking the 5A rushing record. He has 2,584 yards on the season on 294 carries. He has also passed for 179 yards and scored 31 touchdowns.
He had a banner game against Olive Branch in the north state championship game last Friday night. Pogue said that was one of the most memorable games of the season.
“That got us to the championship game,” Pogue said. “It was a hard fought game, came from behind. A lot of exciting plays. What Tig did we will never forget that. That is one of the most impressive performances that has been. That will always stick out in my mind.”
Another memorable game for Pogue was the Columbus game on October 12. He said that game brought the team together.
“That was kind of a turning point for our season,” Pogue said. “We didn’t play very good. We got behind at halftime. At times people thought we were going to go down. Our team really rallied and came together. We became close. We found a way to win that game. Since then we have had some times where we have had some adversity and we just kept overcoming. I thought game that really, really tied us together.”
The unsung heroes, the offensive line, has been the key to Barksdale’s and the Tigers’ success this year, according to offensive line coach William Stewart. Stewart took over the offensive line after Michael Fair left in the spring. The offensive line is one of the elements which already seemed to be at the top of its game, but Stewart was able to keep it together and take it a step further.
“They have done a wonderful job,” Stewart said. “They have been a fun bunch to coach. We had an adjustment period. I get into it. I see a play. I love the game. They had to adjust to me because I am right there with them in their face. They responded well. They do everything I asked them to do. I couldn’t be happier for a better group of kids. They really want to go down there and win this thing. I think behind them they will.”
Offensive linemen include; guard Cameron Wagner, center Jonathan Wilson, guard Quinn Sanford, tackles Marjarvin Chapman, CorDarrius McMurry and Don Blevins. Tight end is Jermarcus “Yoshi” Hardrick.
“We just ask them to play hard, basically block for Tig,” Stewart said. “They have done a great job. Without them we couldn’t be where we are. Tig is a great back, too. We make a lot of mistakes and Tig is able to get going. For the most part, what has been big is the lineman. They just crush people. We always joke. I look up sometime and I see people 10 or 15 yards down field hurt because Yoshi or Quinn or Wilson knocked them down field.”
This is Stewart’s first trip to state championship.
“I am looking forward to it, hoping to bring a ring home,” he said.
Some of the seniors spoke about going to the state championship this year and playing George County. Wagner is glad to have a new opponent besides Meridian. This is his fourth trip to the state championship because he played varsity ball as a freshman.
“I am real excited to play a brand new team,” Wagner said. “Get bored after a while. Good we get to beat up on a new team.”
The reality is some others would like to see another team in north 5A besides South Panola in the championship game.
“If there is someone better than us, show ‘em to me,” Wagner said. “I haven’t seen anybody better than us. When somebody else gets man enough to beat us, then they will come from the north. Other than that, ain’t nobody else going to beat us.”
Wagner talked about what the offensive line has been up against as a player this past season. He knows how everyone thought they would run the same offense as last year.
“When we started running the zone a little bit more and started dumping it up front, teams just felt discouraged playing us head up,” he said. “So they started cutting us and hitting us in the knees and stuff. Just playing dirty. I think their coach told them they weren’t worth nothing up front against us. They couldn’t play us good up front. Still, Tig ran for 400 yards. We still rushed for over 500 yards. Cutting and all that other dirty stuff don’t work. They might as well as take it like a man.”
Senior defensive end Terrance Pope said the year was hard for the team.
“We learned the character of our team,” he said. “We can really win when we need to. We can pull out some wins in tough games.”
Pope has been selected to play in the Alabama/Mississippi All-Star game. Alabama holds the leading win record over Mississippi. Pope thinks getting the players first chosen to play in the game will be key to a Mississippi win this year.
“Last year the players did not choose to play and they had to go to the second players,” Pope said. “ I think if all of us choose to play this year we will win.”
Bud Barksdale, cousin to Tig, said they went through a lot of tough times defensively. He has 36 total tackles on the year and leads the team with five interceptions and has scored two touchdowns, one interception return and one on offense.
“We had to learn fast, real quick,” he said. “We had to get over the bad stuff we used to do.”
Hardrick did not start at the beginning of the season. He had to go through a growing up period to be able to perform with the team.
“I was kind of big headed, came out with an attitude and was not playing,” Hardrick said. “I had an attitude adjustment like coach said. So I got my attitude right and he started working me in.”
Hardrick caught a touchdown pass for 24 yards to help the Tigers win over Tupelo in the second round of the playoffs.
Two other seniors, linebackers Justin Carothers and Joshua Shipp, who were on the team last year but did not see much playing time, talked about making major contributions to the team this season.
Carothers said he is a silent leader this year.
“I feel good since this is my first time,” he said. “I was on the team, but I didn’t have my head on right. I have gotten more serious, disciplined and being a leader. I am not a leader to get onto anybody. I show by example.”
Shipp said the coaches said they were inexperienced at the beginning of the season.
“Me and Flo (Carothers), we had to step up and show we could step into the starting role and play like we have been playing all along,” Shipp said.
Carothers has 50 tackles, two interceptions and three sacks on the season. Shipp has 70 takcles, two fumble recovers, six and a half sacks, and one fumble returned for a touchdown.
Directing the team on the field is quarterback David Renfroe. During this rookie season as quarterback, Renfroe said he has had to face a lot of critics. He is glad he had a veteran offensive line to operate behind. He feels the coaches and everyone else is behind him as he tries to lead this team to its fifth straight state championship.
“David Renfroe started out as a rookie quarterback for what we were doing,” Pogue said. “He has really progressed this year and gotten really comfortable. He has gotten better and better. Now he has great command of our offense and all and has really improved.”
Renfroe has completed 58 of 104 passes this for 945 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has five interceptions and been sacked seven times. As punter he is averaging 32 yards per punt. He is also the extra point kicker and has made 55 of 59 attempts and made both field goals for 71 points. Renfroe has rushed for 43 yards this season and scored five touchdowns. He is partly responsible for 163 of the Tigers’ 472 points this season.
Pogue talked about the other junior leaders who will be expected to lead the team next year.
“David Conner has been a great player for us all year defensively and he will be a guy next year that I can count on heavily,” he said.
Conner, linebacker, has 68 tackles on the year, three fumble recoveries and 16 sacks. He had two sacks against Olive Branch.
Pogue also pointed out linebacker Marvin Burdette, Kendrick Strong, Don Blevins and Reuben Corley as juniors who made an impact on the team this year.
“There are just numerous players who are coming back that we will count on to be great senior leaders,” Pogue said. “We are losing some really good seniors but those guys have been there and it will be their time to be leaders to help us keep our younger guys coming on up. We are really looking forward to that but we want to go out on a winning note Friday night.”
Long before the state championship game, teams were in the weight rooms in December, going through spring practice, summer conditioning work outs, fall practice and then the 11 game regular season. The good ones got in the playoffs and the best ones are playing for the biggest prize.
Pogue said they have been smart as coaches and have eased up on the amount of practice time but made the time count.
“Our focus is to try to be fresh every Friday. I think that has a lot to do with our having a strong performance in the second half, third and fourth quarters,” Pogue said. “We haven’t just worn them down in practice each week and we have that little bit of extra energy in the second half which is what you really need. I think that has gone a long way. We are not putting any more emphasis on that this week–been in a normal routine. I want our energy on Friday night but I don’t want to burn it out through the week. That is what has helped get us through the grind.”
Pogue is pleased about how the coaching staff has come together. It is a mixture of old and new.
“Coach (Willis) Wright, (Mark)Weaver and (Arnie) Oakes have been here. Then we hired Trey Dickerson, William Stewart and Ben Ashley. Everybody was kind of unknown. We came in the spring. Actually we got Ben Ashley the morning we started spring practice. We have done a great job of blending together. Those guys who have been here and the new guys. We have leaned on the guys who have been here and done a lot of the things they have been doing. Then the new guys we brought some fresh ideas. We have done some new things offensively. Defense has stayed the same. This has been the best transition I could have ever imagined. There is not anything I would look back on and say I wish I had done this differently.”
Also on the staff are Gary Sims and Artee Smith.
George County (13-1) boasts a dandy dozen player in senior Alonzo Lawrence who is on the scout.com recruiting list. He has a three-star rating and national ranking of 26. He is 6’0”, 180 pounds and runs the 40 in 4.43 seconds.
Pogue along with Tig Barksdale and Terrance Pope attended the 17th annual state championship press conference in Jackson Monday morning where he met George County’s coach Al Jones and players quarterback Tookie Hopkins, Lawrence, Billy Johnson and Roy Griffin.
“It should be a lot of fun,” Pogue said. “We don’t know a whole lot about them. They don’t know a whole lot about us. They have a great team on film, a lot of speed, a dandy dozen kid, Alonzo Lawrence, defensive back, receiver, great player, good kick returner. Tookie Hopkins, quarterback, is a great player.”
There will be kind of a contrast in styles, according to Pogue, but predicts it will be a fun game to watch.
“We are real excited about the chance,” he said.
The George County Rebels, who moved to 5A three years ago, lost to Meridian the last two years in the south state championship game. This year, they were bound and determined to be the ones to make the trip to Jackson, according to seven-year head coach Al Jones. Their only loss was the season opener to Wayne County 23-6.
The Rebels won their division the last three years.
“The first year we played we probably had a better ball team,” Jones said. “The last year we had 17 first downs to their three. We just had turnovers and they beat us.
“This year was our mission to get them,” Jones continued. “We thought we had a better team last year and didn’t make it. The kids have been so close. Their goal this year was to get to Jackson.”
Jones said his quarterback Tookie Hopkins is the first player he has had to go rush over 1,000 yards and pass over 1,000 yards passing.
“He is our lead rusher and as quarterback he throws a lot of yards also,” Jones said. “He is a multifaceted player. He is the key to our offense and has some skilled players to go with him. But he is the trigger person on offense. He handles the ball all the time. He makes the offense go.”
Each of the Rebels at the press conference had an answer to what got them past the Meridian hurdle this year.
Griffin said the team is more together this year.
Assistant Rebel coach Darwin Nelson said, “The key factor in some of the big wins this year is they turned the intensity level up a little bit as opposed to other games.”
Hopkins said senior leadership got the team to the state championship.
Lawrence said developing a powerful offense to score more points was key because they always had a good defense.