CATEGORY: FOL High School Football

AUTHOR: WAYNE

HED:How the fallen have suddenly become mighty

By Wayne Clements

Daily Journal

It wasn't always like this, but then again, it has always been like this.

High school sports programs, especially football teams, change dramatically from year to year. Last year's Big Bad Wolf is next year's Little Red Riding Hood. A few years of success are followed by a few lean years.

This is mostly true at smaller schools, say Class 1A or 2A. Usually larger schools don't have to deal with the year-to-year ups and downs as much as the small schools.

Last year's state 2A champion, Bruce, has gone from 13-2 to 3-4. The Trojans, with many new players, have taken time to get on the winning track. Okolona, 6-1 at this point a year ago, has yet to win a game.

It's always been like this.

This year is different, though. Northeast Mississippi's most dramatic one-year turnarounds are happening at some of the larger schools -- Houston, Itawamba AHS and Kossuth. A year ago at this time, the three schools were a combined 7-14-1. Today, they're 16-2, with IAHS leading the comeback at 6-0.

It hasn't always been like this.

Houston started 1-5-1 last season. After Friday's 33-7 whipping of Division 1-4A member West Point, the Hilltoppers had won six straight games for a 6-1 mark. Kossuth was 4-4 a year ago; Friday, the Aggies improved to 5-1 with a 34-6 win over Ripley.

This can't all be explained by new players, new coaches, new schedules or new attitudes. But it can be explained by all four.

"It's hard to pin that on one factor," IAHS coach Jimmy Mitchell said. "For us, the biggest thing is the commitment the kids made in the offseason. We've just been fortunate enough to have a group of kids willing to do whatever we ask them to do."

Houston, under second-year coach Rusty Funk, may be the biggest surprise. The Hilltoppers have struggled for years, including Funk's first season. But, with a little extra defensive work during the spring and preseason drills, Houston's fortunes have changed. A slightly easier schedule has also helped.

"We're better, but last year at this time we had already played Kosciusko," Funk said. "We had a tough, tough schedule. We needed a little confidence. They've gotten a taste of winning and I think that'll stick with them."

Houston's easier schedule was by design. It doesn't do a struggling program any good to get pounded once a week.

"Once you've got a program established, you need to play tough opponents to keep that edge," he said. "We've been able to make mistakes, overcome them, learn from them and be successful."

Kossuth has always had a decent defense. But getting a new outlook on offense helped the Aggies hold onto the ball longer. That's resulted in fewer opponents' points and more points for Kossuth. Add a game-ending whistle and that's the recipe for another win.

"The balance on offense ... we have more places to go with the ball," Aggies coach Charlie Dampeer said. "We've got a smart quarterback (Jamie Vansandt) who can get receivers the ball. We'll throw it at any time from anywhere. It keeps people from loading up on us.

"Two years from now, we may not throw it five times a game."

There is no one magic key that opens the winning door. Coaching, talent, attitude, a break or two and an opponent's strength all figure into it.

Here's an intangible: Facing third-and-12 against Ripley Friday, Vansandt rolled right to pass but overthrew Jason Knight. Knight managed to get a hand on the ball. Receiver Lucas Eaton, running a crossing route from the other side of the field, kept running and made a diving catch for a 15-yard gain. Four plays later, the Aggies scored.

"Coaching will only take you so far, ability will only take you so far," Dampeer said. "Sooner or later you've got to find it in yourself to make the play."

Wayne Clements covers high school sports for the Daily Journal.

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