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By JOEL COLEMAN
When Starkville Academy steps onto the field in Clinton today for the State Championship game against Washington School, no one could blame the Volunteers if they have to pinch themselves.
If any of the Vols do, they'll confirm the fact that this is no dream. SA really is back on the highest stage of Class AAA-II football.
It's all the culmination of a nearly-unbelievable tale that Vols head coach Jeff Terrill says has had an effect on everyone surrounding Starkville Academy athletics.
"What really makes it special is the people connected with the program and with the school, they really know what a tremendous story this is," said Terrill. "They know where these kids came from and it's just really a Cinderella story."
Before this year, SA hadn't experienced a winning season since capturing the state title in 2005.
The Vols' fall from prominence hit rock bottom two years ago when the team suffered through a winless season.
Even last year, SA mustered just three wins in Terrill's first campaign at the helm, but the seeds were planted for this season, where the Vols sit at 10-2, are division champions and on the cusp of a state crown.
In many ways, Terrill admits SA's current situation has a lot to do with the players who helped start pumping life back into the Vols last season.
"We told the seniors from a year ago, as we started on this, they were not going to be the bunch that would get to reap the benefits of a winning season or a playoff appearance or a chance at a championship," said Terrill. "That's the reason their slogan last year was to 'Restore the Pride.'
"Certainly that group led and worked hard and helped put this team this year in the position to, as our slogan is now, to 'Take the Next Step.'"
Out-performing their own mantra, SA has instead taken a quantum leap.
The Vols have, at times, dominated this season, winning seven games by 22 points or more.
SA has won games defensively, squeaking past Parklane Academy 7-5.
They've exploded offensively on some nights, such as a 55-12 win over Winston Academy.
All of that has led up to today's 2 p.m. championship game at Mississippi College's Robinson-Hale Stadium, facing Washington (10-1).
Unlike the Vols, the Generals enter today's contest right where many predicted they'd be when this year began.
"They're a team that started the year as pretty much the preseason pick to be (in the state championship game) and to win it," said Terrill of Washington. "I don't think anybody is surprised with them or their record.
"We're just really excited to have the opportunity to go play with the best."
Washington and Starkville Academy aren't strangers.
The two schools met last season in Starkville where the Generals earned a 37-7 win over the Vols.
This past spring, SA scrimmaged against Washington as well.
With all of his knowledge of the Generals, Terrill knows Washington is quite the hurdle standing between the Vols and a championship win.
"They really play great defense," said Terrill of the Generals, who are allowing fewer than 10 points per game on average this season. "I really expect it to be a great defensive football game where points are hard to come by for both of us. Usually, you get in a game like this with two very good defenses and you better play good in the kicking game and you better protect the football. The team that does that is probably going to win."
Like Washington, Starkville Academy has relied heavily on defense as well.
The Vols have given up, on average, just 10.5 points per game this year.
SA's defense has become even more critical in the postseason with starting quarterback Drew Pellum down with injury.
Though Terrill praised the job backup quarterback Ryan McKell has done in Pellum's absence, SA's leader admits the Vols have been limited with a new signal-caller under center, a factor that bears watching today.
"I think the biggest advantage (Washington) has in the game, is it's obvious with our quarterback scenario, our passing attack will be limited," said Terrill. "But one thing about the option we run, we haven't thrown it much anyway and we didn't throw it much last week, but when we did, we scored.
"But I do think they have an advantage in that their quarterback has been with them all year and they are able to throw the ball better than we can."
Despite Pellum's unfortunate injury, McKell was able to make the best of SA's current situation in last week's 28-0 win over Lee Academy.
McKell ran for 52 yards and a touchdown, plus passed for 41 yards and a score as the Vols put up 224 yards of total offense.
McKell did throw one interception.
All of that came with what Terrill called a 'limited' playbook, something that Terrill said won't be the case today.
"(Today) we're going to run more of the true option," said Terrill. "Washington really forces you to do that. They are good enough that you've got to. You've got to expand it and hope you can get it done.
"But (McKell) had a great first week, he's had a great week of practice and I expect him to step up big."
McKell isn't the only one Terrill is relying on to rise to the occasion. Even in what has been a special season, Terrill thinks his Vols have still yet to reach their peak performance level, something that Terrill hopes happens today with a ring on the line.
"I really do believe, and our kids do too, that we haven't played our best game yet," said Terrill. "We're hoping that happens (today)."