Tigers’ mystique as mighty as their streak|[11/17/2005]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 17, 2005

Forty one games, and of those, only a handful could even be called close.

That’s how dominant the South Panola Tigers have been over the past three years, during their 41-game winning streak which includes back-to-back State 5A titles in 2003 and 2004.

At 11-0, the Tigers – the Southern California of Mississippi prep football – are eyeing a third straight state championship.

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Tigers head coach Ricky Woods, who is 55-1 in four years at South Panola, tries to deflect attention on his program’s greatness.

&#8220Our kids have pretty good ownership of the program. They don’t talk about the streak. We just prefer to take it one game at a time,” Woods said.

Woods led Ackerman to the Class 2A title in 2001, then took the South Panola job after Ed Stanley left to take a similar job at Meridian. He said there was very little to change even though the Tigers were coming off a 7-5 season.

&#8220It’s been a good program for some time. It started with Willis Wright. He’s the one who gave it the jump. Then Ed came in and did a terrific job. When I got here, we still had players.”

South Panola, which won a title under Stanley in 1998, advanced to the 2002 title game in Woods’ first season. They lost to Wayne County. It was their last loss.

&#8220We had a real good junior class that year and won 14 straight games and lost to Wayne County. When they became seniors, they were really dominant,” Woods said.

How dominant? The 2003 Tigers scored a whopping 670 points while giving only 127. Through the first 10 games, they outscored foes by 40 points a game (49.7 to 9.6).

The only close game that season was against Carver High School out of New Orleans at 42-22. Ironically, Vicksburg nose tackle Ryan Walker was a sophomore lineman for Carver. Walker, who came to Vicksburg as an evacuee of Hurricane Katrina, says he remembers the game well.

&#8220They were good, but we played them pretty well in New Orleans. The next year, up there, they beat us pretty good. I’d like to play them again,” he said.

Walker gets his wish when the 7-4 Gators travel to Batesville for a first round Class 5A playoff game.

In 2004, South Panola scored only 531 points in winning all 15 games, including a 39-21 triumph over Ocean Springs in the 5A title game.

That was one of three relatively competitive games. Starkville (26-10) and West Point (21-14) were the others.

Starkville coach Bill Lee probably knows the Tigers as well as anybody. He led the Yellow Jackets to the 2001 state title and coached against South Panola last year after spending a year at Gulf Coast Community College.

&#8220How good are they? It depends on what you call good. In their case, they’re extremely good,” Lee said. &#8220And well-coached. Strong, fast, extremely hard to defend.

&#8220People have told me they don’t think they’re as good this year. Well, they beat us from start to finish,” Lee said of the 35-0 loss this fall.

When Lee won the 2001 title at Starkville, a team Vicksburg played for the North State title, he had one of the best defensive front sevens the state has seen in recent years.

&#8220We were also good on the offensive line that year, but Panola, they’ve been like that for the last four years,” Lee said. &#8220It’s an apt comparison. You know you’re going to be in a war.

&#8220But from what I’ve seen, is that I have yet to see a team that can contend with them inside. They just beat you up in the middle.

&#8220Some teams can match up with them skill wise, and this Panola team has four really good ones, the quarterback, the halfback, the fullback and the receiver they got from Natchez. But they are just so strong. You might be able to go a half with them, but you’ve got to do it for four quarters.”

Tupelo coach Eric Collins has seen South Panola two times. They lost 41-14 last year. They were more competitive this fall, losing just 34-17.

&#8220They’re still just so physical up front,” Collins said. &#8220They dominate the game. The way they run through holes is tremendous.

&#8220We were able to make a game of it for a half and then they came out and distanced it. Bill’s right, some teams can match up with them skill-to-skill, but there hasn’t been anybody who can match them up front.”