Tripp McCarty

Pillow Academy coach Tripp McCarty shouts out instructions to his offense during practice Tuesday.

Tripp McCarty believes he has the makings of a championship team.

His Mustangs return a strong nucleus from a team that just missed playing for a state title last season, losing late in the semifinals to eventual champ Lamar School.

McCarty won’t have to wait long to see how the Mustangs stack up against the big boys as Pillow hopes for a run at the school’s first state crown since 2010.

That’s because Jackson Academy, a Class 6A team and one of the largest schools in the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools, comes to Greenwood Friday.

“It will be a measuring stick for sure,” McCarty said. “We’re facing a top program that will be well-coached so we should know just where we are to start the season.”

JA, which went 9-3 last season, played in two scrimmages last week against a pair of public schools — losing 13-0 to Scott Central, one of the preseason favorites to win Class 2A, and tying Forest 0-0.

“That was two pretty good teams they faced so we know they will be ready,” McCarty said.      

It appears the Raiders offense will be a work in progress early. The team lost all of its skill guys and several linemen. McCarty said JA staring quarterback Jackson Conn, a 6--6, 198-pound junior, won’t play after being injured in the jamboree. Junior Andrew Holmes (5-10, 146)  is expected to fill in during Conn’s absence.

Defensively, the Raiders have five, not six, starters back since promising linebacker Donovan Veasley has been lost for the season with an injury. End Chase Bass and tackle Walker Barnes are expected to lead the defense this season.

McCarty said the strength of the Raider defense is in the secondary.

“They have elite athletes in the secondary,” said the PA coach.

That means all eyes will be on Pillow senior quarterback Shane Houston Stephens and his bevy of talented receivers.

The 6-foot-2, 196-pounder set numerous school single-season marks last season — most attempts (297), most completions (172) and most yards (2,396) en route to being named the North AAAA Division II MVP. He also rushed for 309 yards and four TDs while matching the previous school record of 17 TD passes in a season.

Stephens will likely leave Pillow as the program’s all-time leading passer — needing 1,085 yards to surpass Stewart Patridge (1989-92).  

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