By JOEL COLEMAN
In a 2011 campaign that's been near-perfect on many levels, the Starkville High volleyball team had a fitting conclusion to the regular season Tuesday night.
On Senior Night, SHS senior Wheeler Richardson had the match-clinching ace as Starkville topped Ridgeland in straight sets (25-13, 25-8, 25-9) at the Starkville Sportsplex Gym.
The win improved the Lady Yellowjackets to 19-10 overall, 8-0 in Class II, Region 2 play, and put an exclamation point on a division championship for Starkville.
SHS also stayed unbeaten at home for the year, improving to 8-0 on their own court.
Richardson said she couldn't think of a better script for her final regular season game.
"It's kind of surreal to think that was my last (regular season) game at home," said Richardson. "I think it was fitting that I got the ace to end it.
"I'm really happy. We played as a team."
With the win, Starkville advances into the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class II playoffs where the Lady Jackets will host Hernando in a first-round game at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
SHS will host that game at Mississippi State's Newell-Grissom Building.
Before dealing with postseason play however, Starkville had to deal with a very scrappy Ridgeland squad.
In Tuesday's opening set, the Lady Jackets and Lady Titans battled neck-and-neck to an 8-8 tie over the first few moments of action.
Ridgeland wasn't able to hang around for long though, as Starkville put together runs of 6-0, 4-0 and 5-0 over the course of the rest of the set to take the early advantage.
The second set played out like a carbon copy of the opening set.
With Starkville and Ridgeland tied at 5-5, the Lady Jackets again strung together a series of runs, outscoring the Lady Titans 20-3 the rest of the way to go up two sets to none.
Starkville easily took the victory in the third set, capped by Richardson's ace.
Richardson concluded the night with seven aces to go along with 14 assists, two digs and two kills.
Fellow seniors Margaret Allison and Grace Drumheller also had solid nights for the Lady Jackets with Allison recording seven aces and three kills while Drumheller had three digs and a pair of aces.
Khristian Carr added six kills, two aces and two digs for Starkville while April Reese had four kills and two aces and Michaela Mills had two digs and two kills.
Starkville High head coach Lauren Love said she was incredibly pleased with the way her team performed.
"I was very proud of our seniors for coming out and staying focused on an emotional night," said Love. "I was proud of the rest of the team too, because Ridgeland, they can come back on you.
"Volleyball is the type of sport you all have to stay focused every point, so with a big crowd and it being a meaningful night, we were really glad everyone stayed focused and played each point."
With Starkville's win, Love said the Lady Jackets can finally sit back and celebrate its division title, though not for long.
"We enjoyed it in the huddle (after Tuesday's game) and we'll enjoy it (Tuesday night) and (today)," said Love. "We've just got to get back in the gym and get ready and mentally prepare for Saturday."
Love knows Starkville will have its hands full on Saturday against Hernando, the Class II, Region 1 runner-up.
As such, Love says her Lady Jackets must prepare accordingly.
"Hernando is a very consistent team and they are very fast-paced," said Love. "We're going to try and get some scrimmage play in (this week) just to get our speed up again."
In recent seasons, Starkville has been doomed by early exits from the playoffs.
Richardson, who has experienced each of those losses, says she believes this year's team has what it takes to get past Hernando and move deeper into postseason play.
"If we play as a team and play to the potential that I know we can play, we can contend," said Richardson. "I think we all can remember (the past) and we all want to get past it, so I think we're more confident this year and hopefully that will help us."