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August 30, 2011

South Panola struggles, drops from national rankings

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Last season was very special for Batesville (Miss.) South Panola coach Lance Pogue: He guided his team to an undefeated season and the national title, he sent the largest group of players to Division I schools in the history of his school and he personally received major acclaim and awards.

That was last year.

This year's team survived its opening game against West Point (Miss.) High and won, then was overmatched Saturday in a 24-13 loss to Hoover (Ala.) High on ESPN.

"We struggled," Pogue said following the loss. "But there isn't anyone out there that is going to feel sorry for us. We had our day in the sun and now we need to get back to work."

South Panola was the first high school football team in Mississippi to earn a national title. It entered the 2011 season inside the RivalsHigh 100 Top 10.

It was a premature ranking that wasn't deserved. Just ask Pogue.

"We were too young," he said. "We are replacing 17 starters and the majority of those kids are not seniors. It was an impossible level to maintain."

As premature as the rankings may have been, it is not a unique situation for Pogue and the Tigers.

"It reminds me a lot of 2009," he said.

The team entered that season with a group of young, inexperienced starters and lost in its opener to Memphis (Tenn.) University School. It rebounded to win another state title - and set the stage for the national title run.

"I have to hope that is what we can do," he said. "That is what I told the kids after the game. The last time we lost, we were young, but we won 29 straight games, two state titles and a national title since then and that has to be the goal of this team."

But for this team to accomplish the goal of a state title, a lot will need to change - and fast.

"We didn't do much right here today," Pogue said. "Those guys did a great job exposing our weaknesses. Our secondary is young and our quarterback play needs improved."

The team was a shell of its 2010 season.

"We are young," Pogue said. "You can hide that against lesser opponents but not against (Hoover). We are going to have to go through some growing pains."

For a team that has won seven of the last eight state titles in Mississippi, that is a hard pill to swallow. And dropping completely out of the RivalsHigh 100 is unfamiliar terrain.

Despite the poor showing on national television, the team has a great first step to grow.

"We have some football players out there you know," Pogue said. "We just need to do a better job of putting them in a position to succeed and getting some of the guys some support."

Some of the guys could be interpreted as one guy: Antonio Connor.

The junior player was all over the field for South Panola.

He lined up at quarterback, running back, safety, cornerback, and kick and punt returner.

"Antonio is a special player," Pogue said. "But if we keep asking to him to do everything, it will be our own undoing. One player, no matter the skill level, can not carry a team."

With games against Memphis University School, Gulfport (Miss.) High and Olive Branch (Miss.) High all on the schedule before the end of September, there may be more growing pains.

"Our schedule is not very good for developing these young kids," Pogue said. "We are going to need to get to work hard in practice and not let this get away from us."

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