The past few years have built up to perhaps one of the most anticipated football games in the history of Pike County.
While a few years have passed since the Mississippi High School Activities Association and the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools loosened their rules and allowed inter-associational games, North Pike and Parklane Academy have slowly added sports contests against each other to their schedules — but not football.
The two schools finally meet over the pigskin tonight amid some very big football buzz in Pike County.
The game came to fruition this year after Parklane athletic director Chuck Freeman called North Pike Athletic Director Kevin Martin to schedule a game.
“We heard North Pike might have an opening, and some of our traditional opponents were not going to be playing us anymore,” Freeman said. “It seemed like a good opportunity.”
“We thought it would be a good thing for the community for these schools to play each other,” Martin said.
Both men mentioned multiple ties between the coaching staffs and administrations at the schools.
Freeman is a former AD at North Pike who coached with North Pike head coach Chris Smith at McComb before hiring Smith at North Pike, and Martin was also associated with Freeman at McComb.
The schools will also have brothers on opposing sidelines, with offensive coach Jason Cooksey at North Pike facing off against his brother Stephen coaching defensively for Parklane.
Fans seem to be expecting a close, highly competitive game between teams of kids who likely know and are friends with some of their opponents in other settings.
“I’ve coached kids at both schools, and they want to play each other,” said David Smith, another coach with experience both places. “It’s about bragging rights. They’re all friends, and it’s going to be a good, competitive atmosphere.”
And it’s an atmosphere that many figured would happen, even if they didn’t know it would be this year.
“It’s been a long time coming, but I thought it would happen eventually,” said Parklane parent and fan Tammy Gillihan, who also serves as medical staff during home Parklane games. “It just makes sense when you have a quality school just up the road where you can make a short trip.”
Gillihan and Paige Howell, who played football at Parklane but is a North Pike parent, both pointed to offensive philosophies perhaps being the difference in the game.
“It may be like a basketball game,” Howell said. “North Pike likes to play fast. Parklane wants to slow it down.
“Parklane is well coached. They work hard, and they have good fundamentals,” Howell said. “North Pike has lots of good athletes. If there’s one wild card, (North Pike quarterback) Alijah Martin is the best athlete in the game. If anything makes a difference, he’ll be it.”
Richard Dodd, another parent and fan with divided loyalties — children at North Pike, nieces at Parklane — said picking a side would be a bit painful for this game.
“It’s a small community where a lot of people know people with ties to both places. It’s hard to root against the other team,” Dodd said. “You want to see your school win, but you don’t really want to see the other school lose.”
It won’t be difficult for the players, however.
“They’ll see their friends at church or around the community and want to be able to say, ‘Hey, we beat y’all,’ ” Dodd said. “You’ll have the same motivation for both schools.”
And both schools are virtually guaranteed to have large crowds trying to squeeze into the stands to witness the spectacle of the first historic game between the public and private schools.
While Parklane would be expected to have a good crowd playing their first game of the year at home, “we have a big following, and we travel well,” Martin said. “We have 175 in the band. When we show up, we come with a convoy. We have a good crowd every Friday night regardless.”
Freeman said Parklane will open and man the gates starting at 4:30 p.m. today to accommodate the anticipated crowds. “Come early if you want to get a seat,” Freeman said.
He said Parklane regulars should have their usual experience, as most have reserved parking and seating at the stadium.
Instructions for visiting spectators are available on Parklane’s website, and have also been sent to North Pike and distributed by Jaguar staff through their social media accounts.
Visitors generally are urged to park in the Church of Christ parking lot adjacent to Parklane’s campus and on the practice field.
If things go well this year — and next year, when Parklane returns the favor by playing North Pike on their home field at Southwest Mississippi Community College — there’s a good chance the schools will schedule another two-year deal, perhaps in a long string of contracts that move the competition into full-blown rivalry mode.
While the schools have yet to see how the logistics work in making schedules mesh and fitting all the fans in one place, “I don’t foresee any issue that would prevent us from scheduling each other again,” Martin said.
“Both schools will get a feeling of this works this year and next year, and see if they want to continue,” Freeman said. “We’ll play these games and see where it goes from there.”