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By DANNY P. SMITH
The Starkville Yellowjackets have returned to where they want to be and that's competing in the playoffs.
For the first time since the 2008 season when the Jackets lost a Class 6A first-round game at Madison Central, they are back in the postseason in Jamie Mitchell's second season as coach.
Starkville finished the regular season with a 9-2 overall record, including a perfect 7-0 in Class 5A, Region 2, District 6, and host the Hernando Tigers tonight at Yellowjacket Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
"It's really fallen in line," Mitchell said about the season thus far. "If you had told me, we'd be 9-2 when we started, I'd take it and not play a game. We've continued to improve and the guys have bought into our program.
"At the end of two regular seasons, I'm tickled about where we are. Are we satisfied? No. We're starting another season basically and this is certainly new territory for us."
The SHS juniors and sophomores have never played in a playoff game, while the seniors were a No. 4 seed three years ago and suffered a lopsided loss to the Jaguars.
With a squad that's somewhat inexperienced in the postseason, Mitchell is anxious to see how it responds.
"Sometimes that's not a bad thing," Mitchell said. "We just wanted to get in the playoffs. Our guys are tickled to be here and I think they'll play with everything they've got."
The Jackets are led offensively by junior quarterback Gabe Myles, who is now over the 1,500-yard mark in passing and 500-yard point in rushing. He has completed 86-of-177 pass attempts for 1,545 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing for 594 yards on 143 carries and six scores.
The favorite target for Myles in the passing game is Devin Mitchell with 26 catches for 697 yards and nine touchdowns. Preston Baker, who has 367 yards rushing, also has 22 receptions for 361 more yards.
Dennis Ware paces the Starkville defensive attack with 81 tackles, one sack and three fumble recoveries.
"It's funny how this team has really excelled and played some of our best football down the stretch," Mitchell said. "I'm not so sure we didn't play our best game last week (a 35-14 win at Neshoba Central) with no turnovers and only four penalties. We really did some good things."
Mitchell said the Jackets appear to be as healthy as they've been in about a month.
Defensive back Ladorious Pittman (leg) is near 100 percent after a battle with leg injuries, while fullback Stanley Higgins (elbow) has recovered from an elbow injury and lineman Cory Cannon (hamstring) is expected to be back on both sides of the football.
The week of preparation has been "solid" in Mitchell's mind and some extra time has been spent on getting ready for Hernando's style of offense.
"Our kids have done a good job with the mental part of really focusing and listening to what we're trying to get them to do," Mitchell said. "It's a fun time, an exciting time, but at the same time, they understand if we are going to move on, we've got to win. This is the area of one-and-done now so if you don't win, you don't play next week."
Despite bringing a 5-6 overall record to Starkville, Hernando has shown the capability of playing good football through the course of the season.
The Tigers lost five of their first six games, but the losses were to Pontotoc 30-26, Rosa Fort 35-21, Horn Lake 28-27, Clarksdale 28-14 and West Point 33-22.
Since those losses, Hernando has won four of five games.
"They are a team that's been on a winning streak," Mitchell said. "Actually if you watch some of the film between them and Center Hill, they should have beaten Center Hill, who won the division.
"You are not going to find a bad team this time of year. If you are playing (tonight), you are a good football team. I've been in many playoff games and it may be an old cliche', but the the team that makes the fewest mistakes is generally going to win. If we can do what we did the other night, not turn the ball over and cut down on mistakes and penalties, we should have a good shot."
One thing Mitchell believes will help the Jackets more than anything tonight will be support from the home crowd.
Since it has been four years since SHS has hosted a playoff game, it is Mitchell's hope the followers of the school will take advantage of it.
Mitchell was pleased with the attendance for games early in the season and says now is the time to get back to that.
"I hope our community will come out (tonight)," Mitchell said. "Hopefully, they will get behind those guys. I've been disappointed in the crowd down the stretch, but hopefully they've been just taking a break waiting on the playoffs. Maybe they'll come back with us now."