Friday nights in the fall are usually spent at high school football games in Mississippi. Perhaps one of the biggest high school football teams known throughout Mississippi is South Panola in Batesville. Just how did South Panola become so renown and dominant as a football program?
In 1993, the South Panola Tigers first put the state of Mississippi on notice by winning their first ever state championship. Head football coach at the time, Willis Wright, laid the foundation for what would soon become one of the most dominant high school football teams in history.
Wright’s success with the Tigers is apparent as he won one state championship as head coach and five as a defensive coordinator. During the 1993 state championship season, Wright described one of the main challenges that came with figuring out how to win in general.
“The playoffs in Mississippi high school football actually started in 1981, so we were kind of new to it,” Wright said. “I think the most challenging thing about it was really just trying to figure out how to win.”
The former coach faced many challenges, but he didn’t face them alone. “I did have some great coaches to help me out back then,” he said. “There was Ed Stanley and Danny Ray Cole.”
With a team as dominant as the Tigers had that year, complacency was an issue they got to know early.
“We had a really close game in Greenwood, but we knew we had the better team,” Wright said. “We went up by a couple scores and kind of let our foot off the gas. I think the final score was 24-19. I just had to figure out a way to keep the ship righted.
“There were a couple egos, but other than that we had really great leadership on that football team. My goal was to maximize every player’s potential through one-on-one talks.”
The Tigers faced off against the Warren Central Vikings in their first ever state championship football game. With a final score of 42-28, Wright described the atmosphere of the game.
“It was great,” he said. “Exciting! It was really like an Olympic atmosphere. Both team teams came into the game 14-0. It was the first time a team in Mississippi ever reached 15 wins. Back then it was said to be one of the best games ever played in the state even though I’m sure it’s been surpassed by now.”
After 16 years and 10 state championships later, Wright admits that he talks to his former coaching partner and current head coach of the Tigers, Ricky Woods.
“I believe that Coach Woods is doing a great job,” he said. “The strength program is improving along with the junior high teams. The whole coaching staff is doing a great job. I see them potentially fighting for a state championship this year.”
To many people, there’s no doubt that the name “South Panola” holds meaning. Zach Broadaway, Army officer and assistant football coach for the Tigers, made a big sacrifice to be part of the historic program.
“It’s incredible working in a program that has such a powerful presence,” he said. “I moved my family away four hours away from home for this job. We wouldn’t have made these sacrifices for just any school.”
Broadaway describes his experience of being part of the historic team as humbling. “It’s amazing to be a part of a program like this,” he said. “At South Panola, you always have a chance to win it all. It’s not like that everywhere. The kids are just different. They are hungry.”
There is a standard that is upheld within the program. Like Wright, Broadaway teaches his players life lessons on and off the field.
“Accountability,” he said. “I constantly preach that all actions and risks have consequences. Sometimes the consequences are good. Sometimes they are bad . . . Life is a team sport just like football is. They need to learn to control what they can control. You can’t control everything on the field just like you can’t control everything in life. Do what you can do in the moment to be the best you can be in that moment.”
The community, coaches and players take pride in the program and do different things to leave their mark as many others before them have done. However, the Tigers have not been on the state championship stage since the 2014 season.
Janari Dean, upcoming senior running back for the Tigers, said he knows what is needed to get the program back to where it should be. “We are in the process of fixing that,” he said. “We are all buying in and coming together as a unit. We have to continue to work hard every single day.”
Dean takes pride in knowing he plays for a football program that carries a powerful name. “It’s a great feeling,” he said. “People always have high expectations for you.”