By Ruthie Robison The Webster Progress-Times
After acquiring the MHSAA Class 2A North Half title, taking a trip to Jackson for the third time in school history and earning their best high school football record, the Eupora Eagles have a couple of more reasons to be proud this week.
Head coach Junior Graham and senior wide receiver Derrick Jones traveled to Montgomery, Ala. this past Monday to represent their community and their state in the prestigious Mississippi-Alabama All- Star game, which will be held this Sat. at Cramton Bowl.
“It’s always a plus when you have an opportunity to do something like this not only for myself, but for the community, for our high school and what a good year we’ve had,” Graham said.
This past Spring Graham received the news that he was selected as the head coach of this year’s Mississippi squad that will compete against Alabama’s best.
“It’s definitely an honor especially coming from a small school,” Graham said. “I’ve only coached at small schools as far as being a head coach. It’s an honor for me to represent those schools, and at the same time represent the whole state as far as heading up this team.”
There are several guidelines that have to be fulfilled to be selected as the head coach of the Mississippi’s most talented athletes. The football affairs committee of the Mississippi Association of Coaches took in consideration Graham’s successful career as a head coach with four trips to Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, a state championship, assisting in the Bernard Blackwell game a couple of years ago as a scout coach and assisting in the 2004 Mississippi- Alabama game as the linebackers coach. The committee knew Graham was the perfect pick to lead this year.
Graham will be surrounded by a talented coaching staff as well as 40 of the state’s best high school football players. Assistant coaches this year include offensive coordinator and running backs coach Jamie Mitchell of Starkville, offensive lineman coach Tate Hanna of Nanih Waiya, receivers coach Paul Dees of Ethel, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kenny Burton of Ridgeland, defensive linemen coach Judd Boswell of Clinton, defensive back coach Damaris Mitchell of Broad Street, scout coach Lance Pogue of South Panola and administrative coach Howard McNeil.
The players were announced on Oct. 17 at the Mississippi Association of Coaches Office in Clinton.
Jones was listed as a wide receiver on the Mississippi team’s All- Star roster.
“Derrick statistically is one of the top receivers in the state,” Graham said. “He is already verbally committed to Ole Miss. He is a big, tall kid that can run fast, and that’s a good combination. He earned his position on this squad.”
Jones will be the only Ole Miss commit on the team.
“It’s very exciting,” Jones said about going to Alabama with his head coach. “I know I’m not going to be alone, because I know (Graham) is going with me.”
Jones knows competition will be high, but showed enthusiasm about this thrilling opportunity for a high school athlete.
“It’s an honor to be one of the players on the Mississippi team,” Jones said. “A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to play in a game like this.”
Jones has received a flood of congratulations from friends, family, the Eagle community and from Dees. Jones spoke about his hopes to represent his community well this Saturday.
“I hopefully will get put in a position to make a lot of plays for my team,” Jones said. “I’m going to be very excited from the Sunday before to the next Sunday, and I just look forward to playing with those guys.”
This year Jones had 44 receptions for 975 yards with 15 touchdowns and had 14 carries for 125 yards. Defensively, Jones had 46 stops with six interceptions. This season Jones was named Jackson newspaper The Clarion Ledger’s player of the week, WCBI player of the week and was selected by the coaches as Class 2A All-State wide receiver on first team offense.
“I think Derrick worked hard to put himself in this situation. He’s had a really good senior season,” Graham said. “I think it’ll do him good to go Montgomery and compete all week with some really great players. It’ll give him an idea of what it’s going to be like when he steps on the field after he leaves Eupora.”
In addition to Eupora’s All-Star athlete, the Mississippi roster includes 15 Division-1 commits and eight of The Clarion Ledger’s “dandy dozen” players, which three will reside on the offensive line.
“We’re really excited about our offensive line. They come from really good schools and have been coached well. They are big and can move,” Graham said. “Going in we felt like the offensive line was going to be a strength, and we could build around those guys.”
However, this year the Mississippi coaches approached their roster selections differently than in the past. The main goal was get as much speed on their All-Star team as possible.
“That’s one thing we really looked at all the way from our offensive linemen to the managers,” Graham said. “Basically, we wanted to carry as much speed to Alabama as possible, and I think we’ve done that.”
Coaches and players met for the first time on Nov. 4. However, the squad did not begin practice until this past Monday before the neighboring state matchup.
“We have a short period of time, a small window to polish up a team to go out there and give us a chance,” Graham said. “We are only going to get one shot at this team, and there won’t be a redo.”
Mississippi trails in the series against Alabama 18-7, and has lost the past four consecutive years before entering their meeting on Dec. 15. Although Alabama has a larger population than Mississippi and a bigger pool to pull players from, Mississippi has done an excellent job building a competitive team to face Alabama’s best.
“Our goal is to go over to Alabama, win a football game and share it with everyone in the state of Mississippi,” Graham said. The Alabama team boasts 21 verbal commits.
The 26th Annual Mississippi-Alabama showdown is scheduled for Dec. 15 at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala. Kickoff is set for 12:00 p.m. “I’m in this position because I’ve been surrounded by really good assistant coaches that have coached with me since I’ve been a head coach, and the list is long as far as really good football players,” Graham said. “I’m very appreciative, so when I go over there I’m representing a lot of kids and coaches from Weir High School and coaches and players from Eupora High School.”
The game will be airing on ABC-WTVA, channel 45 (digital channel 9.2).