JACKSON, Miss. – Since 2003, all Batesville (Miss.) South Panola has known has been winning. It has been winning at a rate like no other program in the country.
It had accumulated a winning streak of 89 consecutive games, the third longest streak in the history of high school football. It has been winning against some of the best competition in the country: Mississippi 5A football.
On Friday night, all that winning came to an end at the hands of Meridian High School in the Mississippi 5A State Championship Game.
For years, South Panola has thrived on winning the close games, and the 2008 season was no different. After tight wins over Madison Central (24-21), Northwest Rankin (21-14), Tupelo (14-13) and Olive Branch (21-13), the Tigers played in one close game too many - falling 26-20 in overtime.
If you're looking for a hero – or a culprit, depending on your perspective – look no further than Meridian's three-star quarterback Tyler Russell. The 6-foot-5 Mississippi State commit finished 21-for-36 for 243 yards and one touchdown.
Russell's prowess as a passer forced South Panola to use extra defensive backs much of the game, and that freed up the Meridian running game.
After a long Meridian drive was halted by a turnover on downs in the red zone, South Panola fumbled the ball right back to the Wildcats. Two plays later, Meridian was leading 7-0.
Another turnover on a muffed punt by Meridian led to a South Panola score by Xavier Lee, a small, explosive receiver that made several plays in the game. At halftime, the two teams were tied at seven, but there would be much more excitement to come.
The offenses took over in the second half. Both teams put together scoring drives on their first two possessions of the half, Meridian behind the short passing game of Russell and South Panola behind a healthy dose of running back Nicholas Parker - and the playmaking ability of quarterback David Renfroe.
Each team's second scoring drive ended with missed extra points, tying the score at 20 and setting up a dramatic finish. After a missed 30-yard field goal by Meridian at the end of regulation, the Wildcats scored first in overtime, only to miss the extra point.
With the door open for consecutive win No. 90 for South Panola, the Tigers were unable to punch in a score and both sidelines burst into tears - of joy and defeat.
"You can look at my face right now and tell I'm a happy man," said Meridian wide receiver Chris Smith as tears streamed down his face. "I love my team. If it wasn't for my team we never would be here. We broke the streak and we won the state championship, it doesn't get any better than that."
While it was hard to ignore the 89-game win streak, the game's star – Tyler Russell – did his best to focus on the one-game season that was in front of him.
"Our mind-set coming into this game was that we gotta win one game to win state and South Panola was just in the way," said Russell. "We just came out and played as a team and got it done. We were able to do it. We really didn't think about the streak. We just knew we had to win one game to win state."
Starting from scratch
Not many teams know what it is like to go back to the drawing board following a 89-game winning streak that covers five state championships. However, there is no reason to think that the South Panola machine can't keep things rolling.
While South Panola will need to replace a two-year starter at quarterback, coach Lance Pogue has the luxury of returning his 6-2, 210-pound back Nicholas Parker on offense along with standout defensive end Devin Clark. He will also have a young talent at wide receiver in Nikloss Brassell and the Tigers always seem to find mean, physical linemen to run that power ground game that has been so successful.
The Tigers will once again be challenged though. Olive Branch, Madison Central, Oak Grove and several other 5A programs have a lot of young talent returning and should make things adventurous once again for the national power.
A name to watch for Nutt
South Panola's quarterback, David Renfroe, will be heading to Ole Miss next fall – not to play football, but on a baseball scholarship. If Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt has been paying attention to Renfroe's development on the football field, he may do some recruiting on his own campus.
Renfroe is clearly a great athlete. He is an SEC baseball prospect, handles kickoff, punting and field goal duties for South Panola, and he has molded himself into a very good quarterback. Renfroe has great escapability and speed at quarterback. He has a huge arm that he just needs to harness at times. He is a competitor and he has been steadily improving throughout the past two seasons.
If Renfroe were committed to playing quarterback, he has the tools to be one of the top prospects in the region.
Smith making the most of his chances
Four-star wide receiver Chris Smith does not get as many opportunities as you might expect in a pass-heavy offense like the one that Meridian uses. Russell spreads the ball out to all of his wide receivers and does not force things to his future Mississippi State teammate. In fact, Smith was rarely targeted on the evening.
When he did get opportunities, Smith made the most of them. He made one spectacular grab near the sideline where he tipped the ball to himself, shifted his body in mid-air and came down with the catch. He also adjusted to a ball thrown behind him on a slant route that set up the game-winning score in overtime.
Despite his limited touches, Smith showed the hands and fluidity within his routes that earned him such a lofty ranking.