CATEGORY: FOL High School Football
By Gene Phelps
BALDWYN Baldwyn coach Larry Gann has the state's No. 5-ranked small school team and the area's top-ranked Class 2A team.
His Bearcats are undefeated this season, sporting a 7-0 record and in the running for a Division 1-2A championship and a state playoff berth. In two seasons, his team has chiseled out an impressive 15-2 record.
Football is fun again in Baldwyn.
But things weren't always this upbeat for Gann, his coaching staff and his players. Three years ago, a young Baldwyn team finished 3-7. It was the school's fourth consecutive losing season.
Two years before, in the middle of a second straight losing season, Gann entertained thoughts of quiting. He was beginning to wonder if all the heartache was worth it.
One northeast Mississippi coach said there was even a "Can Gann" movement under way.
"It wasn't easy," Gann said. "It wasn't easy on my family. It wasn't easy on my players. It wasn't easy on my assistant coaches. They were hearing what I was hearing, but they didn't know if it was all of us or just me."
Off the field, Gann got the needed support from the school board and superintendent. Former players called and offered words of encouragement. But the one call that probably saved his career came from his former high school coach in Okolona, Charles Faulkner.
Faulkner, now the head coach at Quitman High School, had some words of advice for his former quarterback.
"He called me and said, 'I know what you're going through. You'll start second-guessing everything you've ever done. I know you're working harder than you've ever worked,'" Gann said. "He said, 'Just stick to what you believe in, and if that doesn't work, pull out of it and just move on.'
"About the time I got that call I was beginning to doubt myself. I sort of hung on to that."
Gann said he never doubted his players, despite the losing seasons.
"We had some good kids here," he said. "They tried as hard as they could. They got some bad breaks and some bad calls. We had some injuries. Things just snowballed. We all worked as hard as we could work."
But Gann, taking the advice from Faulkner, stuck to his guns and built a program without "cutting corners and recruiting kids."
Gann said, "You still had to be at practice and you still had to go by the rules."
Things didn't improve much during the 1994 season. Despite finishing 2-9, Gann liked what he saw in a group of freshmen.
"They all sort of hung around together and there was a little talent to go with them," Gann said. "You could tell early on that they were going to stick together."
Five of those players are on this year's team Justin Gentry, Anthony Taylor, William Billips, Josh Bryan and Zack Davis.
This group, Gann says, formed the nucleus for Baldwyn's success and he's glad to see all of their hard work paying off.
"The fact that they've had two winning seasons in a row after the first two years they had in high school football means a lot. It's rewarding to see them get some recognition for the hard work they've done," Gann said. "I'm proud of them. They worked hard to get where they are. It didn't just happen. They understood what it was going to take to get better and they believed in what we were doing. They worked at making themselves better football players."
Gentry, an offensive lineman and linebacker, and Taylor, a defensive end, remember those 2-9 and 3-7 seasons.
"It's a major change from when we were freshmen," Gentry said. "We go out expecting to win instead of expecting to get killed (laugh)."
Taylor, who recorded a team-high 15 tackles in last week's win over Walnut, said: "It's been great winning, but I can't explain what it's like. I know it's a whole lot better than losing."
Another factor in Baldwyn's success, Gann says, is that the coaching staff stayed together. Gann's assistants are Mike Gray, Jimmy Dillinger and Shawn Mathis.
Baldwyn finished 8-2 last season, but missed the state playoffs. The goal this season is to win Division 1-2A and make the playoff field. But to do that, the Bearcats will have to beat Mantachie and rival Booneville on the road, and beat Mooreville at home.
"The next three weeks are going to be tough," Gann said. "We could still not win as many games as last year and be at home again."
If Gann finds his players losing sight of their goal, he only needs to remind them of last season's 17-14 homecoming loss to Hatley.
Baldwyn led 14-0 at halftime then went through a second-half collapse.
"We were 6-0 at the time and we lost the next week to Booneville," Gann said. "That Hatley game serves as a reference point, an attention-getter. They know that if we don't play four quarters we won't get out of the division."
As for his future, Gann hopes to remain in Baldwyn and continue to build a strong program.
"The expectations for any coach in any sport have gotten out of line with exactly what high school athletics ought to be about," he said. "But I also understand how it works. I was very fortunate to survive."