Cin­derella fi­nally turns an even 10

The Covington News - - SPORTS -

I’m won­der­ing how many of us can re­mem­ber ex­actly what we were do­ing 10 years ago, in the sum­mer of 1997? Chances are that if it was just an­other sum­mer, you might not rec­ol­lect any­thing re­mark­able with­out some re­search.

I’d been on a seven-year sab­bat­i­cal from the New­ton County Schools, teach­ing and coach­ing in Mon­ti­cello from 1990-1993, and then in Rock­dale County from 19941997. But the growth which was be­gin­ning to im­pact the county had ne­ces­si­tated the con­struc­tion of a new mid­dle school, and it was my good for­tune to be se­lected as the per­son en­trusted to start the foot­ball pro­gram there, at In­dian Creek Mid­dle School.

And so it was that in the sum­mer of 1997, I spent a lot of time run­ning back and forth be­tween the con­struc­tion site on the Cov­ing­ton By­pass and Ludie’s Sports Shop on Elm Street, where Richie and Scott Childers took care of our uni­form and equip­ment needs and the de­sign they put to­gether was fan­tas­tic.

My old 1985 Dodge Ram D50 pickup was start­ing to show its age, so I took some tape and spray paint, and painted “In­dian Creek Pan­thers” right down the side of it. A pic­ture of me in that truck ap­peared in th­ese sports pages, along with some grandiose com­ments I made about the Pan­thers be­ing the new kid in town. I’m sure that the pic­ture made great bul­letin board ma­te­rial for ri­val coaches dur­ing that in­au­gu­ral sea­son.

Con­struc­tion at ICMS was run­ning a lit­tle be­hind, and there was con­cern as to whether the build­ing would be ready for the start of the 1997 school year. For sure there would be no place to prac­tice foot­ball at the site. So the first thing I had to do was to find daily trans­porta­tion, and luck­ily the school sys­tem’s “bus barn” was right next door to In­dian Creek.

The school sys­tem trans­porta­tion di­rec­tor, rec­og­niz­ing that I had my Com­mer­cial Driv­ers’ Li­cense, gave me per­mis­sion to drive the team bus

ev­ery af­ter­noon to and from prac­tice, and even des­ig­nated a bus ded­i­cated to trans­port­ing the Pan­thers.

The search ended at Le­gion Field, on Mill Street.

Now, Le­gion Field did not look any­thing like it does to­day, I want to tell you. The ground was hard as con­crete. My son and I mowed the grass, in­ten­tion­ally leav­ing it as high as pos­si­ble for some sort of cush­ion, but it was not a good sit­u­a­tion at all.

The first day of prac­tice rolled around and found the in­au­gu­ral edi­tion of the In­dian Creek Mid­dle School Pan­thers run­ning through drills at Le­gion Field. Sure enough, one of the kids fell awk­wardly onto the turf, break­ing his arm.

No kid­ding. On the first day of prac­tice — do­ing all we could to pre­vent it — a kid broke his arm.

Now, any coach worth his salt will tell you that one of the key in­gre­di­ents for a suc­cess­ful pro­gram is hav­ing a sup­port group of par­ents who are will­ing to jump in there and do what­ever is needed in or­der to help. As it so hap­pened, the in­au­gu­ral group of In­dian Creek Pan­ther par­ents con­tained some of the finest worker bees ever as­sem­bled. They started mak­ing phone calls that evening, and the next morn­ing I was in­formed through of­fi­cial chan­nels that In­dian Creek’s foot­ball team was wel­come to prac­tice on the plush car­pet of lush out­field grass on the East­side High base­ball field.

I don’t know who ap­pre­ci­ated the East­side base­ball field more; me, the other coaches, the par­ents or the play­ers. It makes a huge dif­fer­ence when you’re run­ning a tack­ling drill to know that any in­jury sus­tained will be a re­sult of a tremen­dous hit from a player, as op­posed to land­ing on con­crete.

In 1997, ICMS be­longed to the Metro Mid­dle School Ath­letic League, which had two re­gions. The East Re­gion was com­prised of New­ton and Rock­dale mid­dle schools, plus Mon­ti­cello. Mem­bers of the West Re­gion in­cluded county mid­dle schools from Henry and Fayette.

There was no over­pow­er­ing pro­gram in the East at that time, but the big dog — not only in the West but the win­ner of eight ti­tles in the decade of the 90’s — was Henry County Ju­nior High. As the 1997 sea­son be­gan, the only school to have won a league ti­tle in the 90’s other than Henry had been the 1990 Mon­ti­cello team, which I’d had the priv­i­lege of coach­ing. Even then, we’d only beaten Henry, 14-8.

None of that mat­tered on the sec­ond day of prac­tice in 1997, how­ever. Along with as­sis­tant coaches Hank Holder, Michael Smith-Foot and Matthew Jack­son, I was just happy to have a nice place to prac­tice and a great group of sup­port­ive par­ents. Not to men­tion per­haps the great­est sin­gle group of foot­ball ath­letes to come along in one class in th­ese parts.

Lim­ited by GHSA rule to only three weeks of prac­tice prior to the first game, In­dian Creek kicked off the ‘97 sea­son at Sharp Sta­dium, host­ing Me­mo­rial Mid­dle from Rock­dale. Me­mo­rial’s coaches ap­par­ently felt, er­ro­neously, that since ICMS was a brand new school the team would be made up of kids brand new to foot­ball. Along about the time we built a 20-0 lead our chain crew over­heard one of their coaches said, “We might bet­ter start prac­tic­ing ‘til 6 p.m.”

ICMS played the first three reg­u­lar sea­son games against the Rock­dale schools, and were never chal­lenged. The Pan­thers beat Me­mo­rial, 28-8, han­dled Ed­wards, 25-14, and crushed Cony­ers, 38-6. Then it was time to face the New­ton schools and Mon­ti­cello, three pretty tough op­po­nents.

Cousins came to Sharp Sta­dium as pre­pared as any team could be, and it was all ICMS could do to pre­vail, 12-6. Then the Pan­thers trav­eled to Mon­ti­cello, the team fa­vored to win the East re­gion. We jumped on the Hur­ri­canes early, scor­ing twice. But one of the tough­est kids I ever coached, Wesley Atha, was side­lined with an in­jury. Wesley was a multi-po­si­tion guy, play­ing tight end, full­back, pulling guard and line­backer, as we needed him. For ev­ery­body on the field and in the stands, his ab­sence loomed large, in­deed.

As­sis­tant coach Hank Holder’s boy, Huck, was a sev­en­th­grade line­backer and Atha’s backup. Huck went in on the next de­fen­sive se­ries, and Mon­ti­cello tested him im­me­di­ately, fak­ing a power dive right at him and then toss­ing a pop pass to­ward the tight end mak­ing for the seam. Huck re­spected the fake, re­treated into his hook zone cov­er­age, in­ter­cepted the pass and ran it back some 35 yards for a mon­u­men­tally huge touch­down.

We went on to crush Mon­ti­cello, 26-6, and ended the reg­u­lar sea­son by shut­ting out Cle­ments, 12-0, at Sharp Sta­dium.

The Cin­derella story of a first-year team go­ing un­de­feated in their in­au­gu­ral sea­son was not over. Play­ing in the first-ever play­off game the fol­low­ing week, ICMS hosted Ea­gle’s Land­ing Mid­dle School and won that game con­vinc­ingly to move to 7-0 on the sea­son. The fol­low­ing week the Pan­thers hosted the big bad boys of the West, Henry County Ju­nior High, for the league cham­pi­onship at Sharp Sta­dium.

We did not win the ti­tle, but our kids played their hearts out against a phys­i­cally su­pe­rior team as we got beat, 16-0. In fact, had our de­fense not forced and re­cov­ered five fum­bles, all of which stopped re­lent­less drives, it could have been far worse.

And any coach worth his salt will also tell you that there is a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween get­ting beat, as op­posed to los­ing. If you get beat, that means the other guy was bet­ter than you were that night. If you lose, that means you should have won and you did some­thing to give it away.

Hey, I’m here to tell you, if those same two teams played 10 times, Henry County would win ‘em all. They were that big, that phys­i­cal and they didn’t do any­thing to beat them­selves.

So this sum­mer Cin­derella turns 10 years old. I’ve lost touch with most of the guys from those mid­dle school years, but I saw my full­back, Lind­sey Belcher, not too long ago at the car wash near the square. Lind­sey still looks like he could suit up and get af­ter it. I also saw my quar­ter­back, Justin Hipps, from a dis­tance a few months ago. Justin’s mom — the late Kathy Hipps, who lost a coura­geous bat­tle with can­cer sev­eral years ago — was one of ab­so­lute solid rocks in that parental sup­port group. And not long ago I ran into one of the great­est kids on that team, Matt Cooper, who served with the Ge­or­gia Na­tional Guard 48th In­fantry Brigade in Iraq and re­turned home safely.

How long is 10 years? The youngest of the ’97 Pan­thers, chrono­log­i­cally, was my sev­enth-grade son, Davis. Three months ago we cel­e­brated his grad­u­a­tion from the In­di­ana Univer­sity Ja­cobs School of Mu­sic.

So as the 2007 sea­son nears of­fi­cial kick­off, and I con­tem­plate the long, hot sum­mer which has gained a spot in Ge­or­gia’s record books, it’s not hard for me to re­call ex­actly where I was 10 years ago and what I was do­ing.

I had a date with Cin­derella, one which I’ll never for­get.

Nat Har­well

Colum­nist

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