New coach, new scheme, more wins for South Panola

Folks around Batesville, Miss., are spoiled. Each autumn Friday night for the past five years has been reserved for winning.

For the last 67 high school football weekends, it's been all about the South Panola Tigers. Mississippi's four-time large school (Class 5A) champions are creating history with each victory.

"What's going on here won't be done again," South Panola coach Lance Pogue said of the nation's longest current win streak, which stands at 66 entering tonight's game at Columbus.

These are indeed fruitful days on the Mississippi Delta, a stretch of flat earth located betwixt the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers in the northwest section of the state. It is home to bountiful cash crops such as soybeans, sugar cane, rice and cotton, grown in the fertile ground. Blues musicians B.B. King and Muddy Waters are legends and a budding rap superstar named Soulja Boy (aka DeAndre Way) is topping the Billboard charts. Soulja Boy, a resident of nearby Pope, is a South Panola alumnus.

The No. 4-ranked Tigers (6-0) have done their own chart-climbing, having ascended two spots in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 rankings since the preseason. The Tigers have not lost since bowing in the state final against Wayne County (Waynesboro) in 2002.

The Tigers have done it with a new coach, a new offensive scheme and assorted personnel chomping at the bit to stretch the consecutive win streak, add more hardware to the program's trophy case and generate their own legacy.

Players are considered local celebrities. Terrance Pope, a promising senior defensive lineman, lives with this attention 365 days a year.

"It's what everyone wants to talk about," said Pope, who is receiving heavy interest from Mississippi and Mississippi State.

Pope hears it mostly from former football players who like to compare teams and eras. When asked to compare teams, Pope politely replies, "I know your teams were good, but we're better."

No one's arguing with Pope's logic. Simply put, South Panola is putting together a historical run and the "2007 National High School Sports Record Book", edited by the National Federation of State High School Associations, is compiling the tableau.

If the Tigers run the table this season, winning 10 regular-season games (five remaining) and up to four in the postseason, they would rank third all time for consecutive wins. South Panola currently is tied for sixth with St. Mary's Colgan of Pittsburg, Kan. (1999-2004).

According to the record book, the top five high school football win streaks are:
1. De La Salle of Concord, Calif., 151 games (1992-2003)
2. Independence of Charlotte, N.C., 109, (2000-2007)
3. Hudson, Mich., 72, (1968-1975)
4. Jefferson City, Mo., 71, (1958-1966)
5. Animas, N.M., 69, (1984-1990)

Last month, No. 17 Independence saw its win streak halted at 109 games on Sept. 1. It still hasn't lost in 111 games against North Carolina schools, but a 41-34 overtime loss to Elder (Cincinnati) in the Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge in Cincinnati still stings.

"The adults, coaches and support staff felt the pressure more throughout the streak," Independence coach Tommy Knotts said. "The kids are resilient, but they are devastated and felt they blew the win streak."

Knotts admits the streak began to take on a life of its own around the fourth season (2004).

"It didn't matter that we won [the game] or how well we played but that we kept the streak alive," he said. "I really thought the program was going to make history. We have three pretty good classes lined up."

In February, the main architect of the Mississippi's record win streak, Ricky Woods, announced he was leaving South Panola. It was no secret that Woods, 47, had accrued 25 years in the state's educational system, but bolting for another job was a shock.

Woods was larger than life at South Panola, restoring community pride and bringing national acclaim to the delta town with a population of 7,113.

Woods built a stellar resume in Mississippi, going 74-1 and winning four state championships in five seasons at South Panola. He also won two 2A titles at Ackerman. Woods left with a state pension and healthy salary at another school.

So when he announced he was leaving for Bainbridge High in Georgia, it created an opening for Pogue, who had been coaching at his hometown, Eupora (population: 2,326), in Webster County.

Pogue, the son of a farmer, was a self-proclaimed "overachieving linebacker" who played at Eupora and two years at Holmes Community College in Mississippi.

Growing up in a rural agricultural community in central Mississippi provided Pogue with an iron-clad blue-collar work ethic, which allowed him to bond with Panola County natives.

"Batesville and Eupora are similar," Pogue explained. "Both are small towns which love football. But for the most part, the whole state is crazy about football and Friday nights are an event. Across the south, high school football is important to the communities."

And that's what Pogue has delivered to the locals since his hire on March 1. His product is refined, exciting and different from the Woods era.

Pope, a two-year defensive starter, noted Woods' in-your-face coaching style is a stark contrast to the laid-back Pogue.

"Coach Woods was direct; you knew when you made a mistake," Pope said. "With Coach Pogue if you mess up, he's more understanding and will explain things and correct it quickly.

"But really, both coaches don't stand for it if you don't put out a big effort on every play."

Pogue was an admirer of the Woods' program. "We're friends; he's a great guy and coach," he said.

The playbook of the program also has a new offensive look.

Under Woods, South Panola was known for its vaunted run-oriented option offense. Last season the Tigers set the state record for most consecutive wins with their 52nd against this week's opponent, Columbus. The previous mark of 51 had stood since 1983.

In recent years, the Tigers sent numerous players to the Division I level. Derek Pegues and Demario Bobo play for Mississippi State, while Ole Miss features starters Peria and John Jerry on the offensive line. Before departing for Georgia, Woods watched as his star linebacker, 2006 state player of the year Chris Strong, inked his national letter of intent with Ole Miss.

Now Pogue has South Panola scheming.

"I hope to be less predictable [on offense]," Pogue said.

That means multiple formations, zone blocking and more passing. The passing game emphasizes high-percentage throws with low risk. Pogue and new coordinator Trey Dickerson's visionary offense is the perfect complement to sage defensive coach Willie Wright. Pogue made sure to retain Wright, considered a defensive guru, when he was hired.

"He's the best coach this state has ever seen," Pogue said of Wright, who led the Tigers to their first state title in the early 1990s.

The Tigers have allowed only 10 points in their last two games, including a key 17-3 victory over Region 1-5A rival Olive Branch on Oct. 5 before an overflow crowd of 10,000 at Bob Dunlap Stadium in Batesville. Olive Branch entered the game averaging nearly 45 points. Last season, South Panola eked out a 12-7 regular-season win against Olive Branch and crushed it in the 5A state semifinals.

Wright's fingerprints can be traced to the Tigers' 42-0 thumping of Clarksdale, the state's preseason No. 2 (and a Class 4A favorite) on Sept. 7. The offense also clicked when running back Darius "Tig" Barksdale ran for 203 yards and four TDs.

The offense is triggered by junior quarterback David Renfroe, who threw for three TDs in a 44-12 win over Trezevant (Tenn.) last month.

Quin Sanford, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound offensive guard, likes the new schemes. He's worked overtime to absorb the new terminology and nuances of his blocking assignments.

"I've learned so much from [Pogue]," said Sanford, an Ole Miss recruit. "My [blocking] technique has improved. It's fun so long as you put in a good effort."

Pogue, who coached in the junior college ranks, recently showed his disciplinarian side when star running back Barksdale was suspended for the Olive Branch game. His substitute, sophomore Nicholas Parker, picked up the slack, rushing for 126 yards.

What's ahead
With the Tigers past the midpoint of the regular season, tonight's game at Columbus will be followed by home games with Tupelo, Starkville and Desoto Central and at Southaven.

It's usually around this point of the streak when the media attention starts to intensify and phone calls from other schools start rolling in.

"Everyone suddenly wants to play you," Knotts said. "They all want to have a chance to end the streak. It's crazy. The media began asking why we weren't playing the best teams in the nation. But I'm proud of winning 109 [consecutive games]. I think back and remember trailing 21-0 in one game but came back to win. You're going to have off nights but life is not about 109 wins."

For the rabid Tigers fans, winning their 67th straight is important, but so is a fifth 5A championship on Dec. 7 at Jackson's Mississippi Memorial Stadium.

"As the season winds down the margin for error becomes slimmer and slimmer," Pogue said.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.