Annie Costabile has a behind the scenes look at Clinton. The Arrows are preparing for Thursday’s season opener with South Panola with the same high expectations, despite losing much of last year’s 6A state championship team.
Annie Costabile

PEARL — They gathered the seventh and eighth-grade football players one day in the fall of 2012 with a message that now feels like a prophecy.

This group was good. The Pearl Junior High School coaches could tell after a week there was something special about them, particularly those seventh-graders, so Jimmy Kennedy and the coaching staff decided to put goals on their minds as soon as possible.

“You eighth-graders,” Kennedy recalled saying, “are going to have a chance to win a state title your senior year. It will be these seventh-graders that get you there.

“Then you seventh-graders are going to have a chance to do it again your senior year.”

Pearl coach John Perry saw it too. Perry is the only Pearl head coach to graduate from the school. He’s seen most of the great Pearl teams. He remembers that 1999 class with stars like Justin Jenkins and Chris Knight.

“I told them at the end of the seventh grade they’d probably be the best class to ever come through here,” Perry said.

Sign up: Receive The A-Gap Newsletter in your email inbox

Perry may have been right — those seventh-graders are now seniors, and the Pearl Pirates are No. 1 in the preseason Super 10 and open the season Friday against Brookhaven as the favorite to win the state championship in Mississippi’s largest classification.

But it was hard for them to believe it then. It was a lot of talk that sounded good, and stars like Tylan Knight had trouble seeing the proof of what they could be.

It became even more difficult as those seventh-graders became sophomores in 2015 and they struggled. It was Pearl’s first season in 6A, and the Pirates had 10 sophomores starting. The coaches made…