Heading into the season, Neshoba Central was returning eight starters on defense, and head coach Patrick Schoolar said it wasn’t a secret they would rely on the defense early.

Standout running back Jarquez Hunter and quarterback Eli Anderson returned on offense, but most of Neshoba Central’s starters on that side of the ball were new. The defense has done its job, as opponents are averaging just 12.2 points per game against the Rockets (5-0, 2-0) so far. 

Now, as Neshoba Central enters Week 6 against Canton, Schoolar said he’s been pleased with the offense’s progress, as the Rockets have scored 35 and 34 points, respectively, in their last two contests.

Patrick Schoolar

Patrick Schoolar

“We’re getting better every week,” Schoolar said. “With five new offensive linemen, you’re going to have growing pains for sure. I think we’ve gotten better from Week 1 to last week. There’s still room for improvement, but anytime you have a running back of Jarquez’s caliber, you can do a lot with a little.”

Anderson has also performed well, Schoolar said, and the team’s receivers have done their part, whether it’s catching passes or throwing a key block.

“I think we’ve been able to throw well — nothing extravagant, but I think we’ve had 100 yards a game passing, so that keeps people out of the box,” Schoolar said. “I think last week every receiver who played caught the ball, and that’s big for those guys to both be able to block and get the ball thrown to them.”

The biggest concern for Schoolar is depth, but as long as there aren’t any injuries, he’s confident the team will continue improving.

“We’re getting better every week, and you should be because you’re practicing,” Schoolar said. “We’re not where we want to be, but if we stay healthy — we’ll be in trouble if we don’t — I think we can get there.”

Hurricane Delta in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to make landfall in Louisiana Friday and make its way up Mississippi over the weekend, which has forced Neshoba Central to move its homecoming game with Canton from Friday to Thursday. Preparation has largely stayed the same, though.

“In Week 6 it’s not a big deal,” Schoolar said of moving the game up a day. “In Week 1 it would’ve been a big deal, but the kids are in a routine now and know what they’re doing. We’ll still practice like always on Wednesday, so it’s not a big deal. If I was a first-year head coach and we were doing something totally different it would be a big deal, but things like this don’t really affect us.”

With the Rockets undefeated and ranked in the top 10 in Mississippi, some teams might get caught up in the hype, but Schoolar said his players have done a good job staying grounded. 

“The kids know how quickly things can change,” Schoolar said. “Our kids have a good humbleness to them. They know they’re a good football team together, but they also know one screwup here or there can mean a loss because our schedule isn’t easy. It’s something new for them because there were expectations going into this year, whereas last year we kind of surprised people. The expectation this year was to be good, and I think we’ve handled it pretty well.”

Another one of Schoolar’s worries is potentially losing games due to COVID-19, which he said has forced next week’s opponent, South Panola, to cancel. It’s one of numerous games canceled statewide over the course of the season, and Schoolar admitted he’s worried it’s only a matter of time before his team is forced to do the same.

Neshoba Central is operating with a split schedule that limits the number of students on campus at any one time, and the team tries to limit player interaction at practices by having different groups practice at different times. Still, Schoolar said it’s possible to lose multiple games due to contact tracing despite all of the precautions being taken.

“We keep things in the classroom to where everyone is 6 feet apart, that way if one is sick the whole class isn’t sick because we’re wearing masks and staying apart,” Schoolar explained. “We’re trying our best not to lose anyone to a contact trace, but I think we all know we’ll have it happen eventually. I feel like it’s an opponent we’re not going to beat. Eventually it’ll beat us, but when is it going to happen? We’ve split up practices so as not to have everyone there at one time, so maybe we can not be hit that badly.”

There are no plans to fill next week’s open date with an opponent at this time, Schoolar said. For now, he’s focused on Canton (1-3).

“They’re a young team,” Schoolar said. “Coach (Calvin) Bolton and I have been good friends since I started coaching in the division, and he always puts a good product on the field. He’s had some ups and downs, and things are tough for him right now, but they always have players, good athletes who play hard. We’ll see where we’re at on Thursday. They can score pretty quickly.”

Kickoff is at 7 p.m Thursday at Neshoba Central.

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