Multiple Teams · South Panola Opens with 4 teams in the top 5

South Panola High School

Imagine, if you will, Alabama opening its football season against Oklahoma on the road. And then playing Texas. And then taking on Oregon.

Then, after getting into its brutal SEC schedule, the Crimson Tide takes an October break from the league to take on, say, Ohio State.

Never happen, you say, and you are right. Nobody’s courageous – or crazy – enough to do that in college football. You’re trying to win a national championship. A victory’s a victory, no matter whether it’s against Kent State (Alabama’s opening foe) – or Florida State.

Give the Tide credit for playing Penn State next, but Bama’s other two non-conference games are against North Texas and Georgia Southern. That’s the way nearly all college football powerhouses make out their schedules.

Now then, compare that to Mississippi Class 6A high school powers, most notably South Panola. Lance Pogue’s No. 1-ranked Tigers opened on the road Saturday night with a 37-17 victory over two-time defending 5A champ West Point, ranked No. 3 in The Clarion-Ledger preseason Super 10. This Saturday, South Panola goes to play Hoover (Ala.) High, No. 3 ranked in Alabama and state champs six of the past 10 years. Then, the Tigers play Memphis University School, one of two teams to knock off South Panola over the last eight seasons.

Surely, you think, they would take a break the next week. But, no, they travel 300 miles south to play Gulfport, 11-2 last year, and ranked No. 6 in our preseason Super 10. All that’s before they get into their rigorous division schedule, which includes powerhouse Olive Branch early on.

“Our goal is to compete for a championship every year,” Pogue said. “You can’t get in the latter part of the year and win a championship unless you’ve been tested. We’re a young team. I wanted to test them early so they would be ready in November. We’ve done it this way before and we’re going to continue to do it. Our kids like it and expect it.”

Know this: South Panola is not alone.

Loss can be positive

This past Friday night, perennial 6A powers Olive Branch and Madison Central began what will be a taxing season for both by playing one another. It was 6A football at its best – well, as good as it can be without South Panola involved – and it was a game neither had to play. Olive Branch prevailed 28-24 mainly because quarterback Todd Mays wouldn’t let the Conquistadors lose.

“Great competition makes you better,” Madison Central coach Bobby Hall said afterward. “We lost tonight, but we will be a better team because of this game. Our goal is to win a championship, and, other than making us better, this doesn’t affect that goal at all.”

For Madison Central, the killer schedule has just begun. Starkville’s next, followed by No. 9 Petal and then Louisiana kingpin West Monroe (62-4 over the past five seasons).

“That’s the way we want it,” Hall said.

Same goes for Olive Branch’s Scott Samsel, who buys totally into the you-gotta-play-the-best-to-be-the-best theory. Two reasons: No. 1, Samsel says, he wants to challenge his team.

No. 2? Well, that’s a story.

“A few years ago, we needed a game and we scheduled a team (Treadwell) from Memphis to come play us,” Samsel said. “After we scheduled the game, they announced the school was going to close. I guess a bunch of kids moved out. But they came to play the game and it’s the single most embarrassing thing I’ve ever been through in coaching.”

Olive Branch led 81-0 after three quarters and won 81-8.

“Our starting offense played seven snaps,” Samsel said. “We played everybody. There was nothing I could do about it. You can’t tell your kids who never get a chance to play to not try.

“We didn’t get anything out of the game, not one thing,” Samsel continued. “Obviously, they didn’t either. I decided that night that we were going to play quality teams from then on, win, lose or draw, no matter what. I never wanted to go through that again.”

Thus, such non-division games as playing at Madison Central.

“I’m not saying this because we won, but we’re a better team after tonight,” Samsel said. “And Bobby has a better team after tonight. This game will help both teams down the road.”

Took lumps in ’10

There is a danger in hyper-scheduling, Samsel is quick to warn. Take last year, when the Olive Branch Conquistadors, a very good team, finished 8-5.

Early on, Olive Branch played at Florida power Cocoa. The Conquistadors played well but lost 14-7 to a team that would finish 14-0 and win a Florida state championship. Olive Branch also lost three of its next four to the likes of Brentwood (Tenn.), which finished 10-3, Southaven (9-3) and eventual national champ South Panola by a whopping 42-7.

“All the sudden you’d hear people saying that I can’t coach any more and our players can’t play any more and questioning everything about our program,” Samsel said.

Yeah, right. Olive Branch reeled off six straight victories before being eliminated from the playoffs in a rematch with South Panola, this time in a competitive game by a 24-13 score.

In other words, Olive Branch took its lumps but became a better team. And isn’t that the goal?

Reach columnist Rick Cleveland at