It was easy to find football success in Starkville for 2011.
Whether it was Mississippi State, Starkville High School or Starkville Academy, the city experienced some good times on the gridiron this year.
The Starkville Yellowjackets reached the Class 5A State championship game, while the Starkville Academy Volunteers played for the Class AAA-District 2 State title and the Mississippi State Bulldogs became bowl eligible for the second-straight season.
The moments the Jackets, the Vols and the Bulldogs enjoyed on the football field were chosen as the top three local sports stories of 2011 by The Starkville Daily News staff.
After experiencing a nine-win season, Mississippi State began the year with a dominating performance at the Gator Bowl, beating the Michigan Wolverines 52-14 on Jan. 1.
The Bulldogs generated 485 yards of total offense and quarterback Chris Relf was chosen the Most Valuable Player for the game after throwing for 281 yards and three touchdowns.
"That was fantastic," MSU football coach Dan Mullen said of the Gator Bowl experience. "I've been involved in some big games and this is one of the biggest. This is such an accomplishment."
That victory caused an offseason of anticipation and high expectations for the Bulldogs and their followers.
MSU started the fall by knocking off Memphis 59-14 on the road, a win that added to the notion that the Bulldogs were getting ready to have a special season and moved them to No. 16 in The Associated Press rankings.
Two tough losses to defending national champion Auburn 41-34 and eventual Southeastern Conference champion LSU 19-6 may have caused MSU to tumble out of the rankings, but Mullen remained encouraged by the way his team was competing.
After the Bulldogs beat bowl-participant Louisiana Tech 26-20 in overtime, they may have suffered the most disappointing loss of the season at Georgia 24-10.
MSU had other difficult losses within the conference to South Carolina 14-12 and Alabama 24-7 at home and to Arkansas 44-17 on the road, but won against UAB 21-3 and Kentucky 28-16 on the road and UT Martin 55-17 at home to take a 5-6 record into the regular-season ending Egg Bowl against rival Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs overwhelmed the Rebels in the rain 31-3 at Davis Wade Stadium to become bowl eligible and the next week accepted a bid to play at the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., against Wake Forest.
"It's definitely a blessing to be able to get this third-straight win in the Egg Bowl," MSU senior linebacker Brandon Wilson said immediately after the Ole Miss game. "This made us become bowl eligible so we're real happy. We definitely got what we came for."
SHS was looking for a better season in Jamie Mitchell's second year as coach.
After losing the first game of the season to Noxubee County 33-21 and finishing the non-region schedule with a 2-2 mark, the Jackets won all seven games in Class 5A, Region 2, District 6 to capture the region championship.
Starkville started the Class 5A playoffs by defeating Hernando 42-28 at home, but what could be considered the signature victory of the season came in the second round when the Jackets knocked off the West Point Green Wave at home 20-14. SHS gained a measure of revenge against West Point after dropping a 33-12 decision in Clay County on Sept. 9.
The Jackets used the momentum of the win against the Green Wave to beat Ridgeland 28-7. Starkville's second win against Ridgeland for the season was good enough to claim the North Class 5A title.
Even though the Jackets lost a 38-21 decision to Picayune in the Class 5A Championship game, Mitchell was a little surprised the program has gotten to the point to compete for a state title in his second season.
"You'd think it'd take a little bit longer," Mitchell said. "We were thinking our third year here would be better than the first couple because we have so many young players, but it was just a magical year.
"Things fell in place for us. The kids just did a great job of playing and the ball bounced our way some and it has got to happen that way if you are going to get to Jackson."
The football bounced Starkville Academy's way also on the way to playing for a state championship.
The Vols won the first five games of the season and out-scored their opponents 181-32 in the process.
SA had a hiccup with a 23-0 loss to Jackson Prep, but bounced back to win the next four games. An 18-7 win against East Rankin Academy gave the Vols the Class AAA-District 2, Division II crown.
After losing the final game of the regular season to Presbyterian Christian 21-3, Starkville Academy rebounded again to shut out Clarksdale-Lee at home 28-0 to reach the Class AAA-District 2 State Championship game.
Like SHS, SA came up just short of a state title, losing to Washington School 20-0, but head coach Jeff Terrill was extremely proud of how far the program had come.
"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," Terrill said. "They know where these kids came from and it's just really a Cinderella story."
Other top sports stories of 2011 were Mississippi State's run in baseball that fell just one game short of advancing to the College World Series, the retirement of MSU sports broadcaster Jack Cristil, Starkville's Gavin Ware signing with the Bulldogs, East Mississippi Community College winning the national championship in football, East Webster's fastpitch softball team advancing to the Class 3A State championship series, MSU women's basketball coach Sharon Fanning-Otis winning her 600th career game and the Starkville Soccer Association Bulldogs claiming two state titles and the State Games.