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By DANNY P. SMITH
State championship basketball at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson can be overwhelming for a player.
Starkville High School junior Mike Brand is thankful to have last year's experience to fall back on.
Brand was one of the Yellowjackets with a significant role in helping the team to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A state championship and Grand Slam title.
Starkville returns to the Big House (a.k.a. Mississippi Coliseum) today for the first time since that memorable run when it plays Meridian in the first round of the Class 6A state tournament. The tip is scheduled for 8 p.m.
When the bus pulled up to the Big House last year, Brand admitted to having some nerves, but they went away when the Jackets took the court.
"When you first start out, you are kind of struggling, but you've got to remember that you are playing basketball," Brand said. "It's just another game even though it's a little more important than all of the others."
Edward Townsel and Rashad Perkins were the two main scoring threats for Starkville in winning the title in 2010. The torch was passed to Brand, Gavin Ware and others for the future.
SHS boys basketball coach Greg Carter said there were so many juniors and B-team members that heard about the championship that they wanted to make sure to carry on the tradition.
"Last year's team let them know that we've set the bar high and it's time for you to step up," Carter said. "They want to carve out their own identity and want to be remembered for this year and not last year. They are excited about going in. We're going in with confidence and loose."
Brand credits Townsel and Perkins for being the players they were in leading the Jackets. He knows it's going to take a team effort to repeat.
"It's hard to uphold it because they were so good, were a big part of our offense and the bulk of our scoring," Brand said. "We kind of expected the same. We've all got to work together to make up for the scoring they did."
Starkville (19-8) defeated Jackson Murrah 52-48 to earn the right to play in the state tournament, but fell short of the North State championship with a 52-48 loss to Vicksburg.
The Jackets have been without Ware, a junior post player, for the last four games with a knee injury.
It was first thought Ware just had a bad bruise, but it was later learned that he strained some major ligaments and cartilage underneath the kneecap. He will be in a brace for about a month.
Carter said Starkville is prepared to proceed without Ware.
"We've had so many guys go in and out of the lineup that we don't even talk about it much," Carter said. "We just make the adjustment and just move on. The guys don't really dwell on it much. Whatever role they have to fill, they just step up and fill it."
The Jackets defeated Meridian for the Class 6A crown last year, but the Wildcats came to SHS earlier this season and recorded a 70-59 decision.
Meridian is led by Mississippi State signee Rodney Hood, but Carter is quick to point out that the Wildcats aren't a one-man show.
"They keep four to five guys on the floor that can score," Carter said. "Everybody they put out there can play. They've got about eight seniors that have been together since junior high and they play well together. They have such a good chemistry with each other. They were really good when we played in that first game. I don't know how much better they can be.
"They've got so many scoring weapons that they can score a lot of points so it puts pressure on us to score points. We've got to take advantage of every open shot we get. We've got to make the right pass and decision we can."
Brand knows there's not many who believe the Jackets can knock off the Wildcats, but he looks forward to the test.
"They are really good and are expecting to beat us," Brand said. "I think we will give them a fight and can actually pull this one out."