Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Pride of Lions

It's week 7 of the 2013 high school football season at Victory Christian School. You pull on your blue and orange jersey. You strap your helmet on.

You walk out onto the field and see the stands. They're full of people. Most of them are here to see the 20 members of the Homecoming Court. But at least they're here.

You think about the hot summer workouts. Images from the last seven hard weeks of practice fill your mind. You remember spring football. You'd had second thoughts about playing this year after last year's winless season. But you couldn't imagine NOT playing football. Then, your coach tried to cancel the whole season. You shake your head at that thought. Oh ye of little faith. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Coach.

Of course, you can hardly blame him. Your school has only won 1 game this decade. It was a 2-point victory over Alabama School for the Deaf. But, a win's a win. In fact, VCS has had 10 losing seasons in 14 years of playing football. This season alone, you've been outscored 68-302. And, it could have been worse, if every team wanted to score as much as possible like Wellborn. Several of your friends had too much pride to stay on the team, too. You know they'll poke fun at you Monday in the halls after yet another loss. But you know you'll get the last laugh. You're out here. And they aren't.

You're grateful for the principal who stepped in a refused to let the coach forfeit the season. You are thankful that your new coach understands that it's important to you and your teammates that you get to be part of this.

You look across the field at the other squad. You see the smiles on their faces. You see their relaxed attitude. You're a little envious. What would it be like to win games? What would it be like to feel like you have a chance?

You look back at your teammates, and you can't help but smile, too. No, you're not going to win tonight. You're not even going to be close to winning. You probably aren't going to win another game this season. But you do get to play. You get to come out here under these lights with your brothers. You get to hear the faithful fans and the prettiest girls in school (the ones with the pom pons, of course) cheering for you. You get to feel the sting of sweat in your eyes. You smell the grass. You hear the band playing. And you know, there's nothing else quite like this. You wouldn't trade it. This is your school. These are your teammates. And, you had too much pride not to be a part of this.

There are numerous teams across the state with only a win or two to show for their efforts. But, it doesn't mean they have given any less effort. Those kids work just as hard, they love it just as much, as many of the top-ranked teams. You have to respect those kids.  It's a whole lot easier to drag yourself through a tough Tuesday practice when you think you have a fighting chance to win on Friday night. It's easy to get excited about possible region championships and playoff berths. But what about those kids who know they are playing their last game this Friday night? What about the teams that know they won't win? What motivates them? What keeps them from just giving up altogether?


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sweet Victory

"If Woodland hadn't turned the ball over so many times, they would've won last year."

"Ranburne hasn't played anybody yet this year."

"Can Ranburne withstand the pressure of a game of this magnitude?"

October 4th, 2013 is a date that has been circled on many calendars since Ranburne shocked the Woodland Bobcats in a week 6 defeat a season ago. And, I don't have to explain why to anyone in either town.

They say you can't go home again. But on Friday night, Coach got on a bus and made the 15 mile trip from Ranburne to Woodland....home. It was the first time he'd stepped foot on that field on a Friday night since the 2011 season, when he was the Bobcats' defensive coordinator. He took his team into a locker room where he hadn't dressed since he was a 14-year-old junior high player at Woodland. He watched his team warm up on the same end of the field he last warmed up on as a Senior member of the Bobcat squad. He climbed into the press box and watched 22 starters line up for the first snap, 22 young men that have all been coached by him.

In July 2012, Coach made a difficult decision to leave home, the coaches that had shaped him as a coach, and players he loved like sons to take a job as OC at Ranburne to see if the philosophy he'd developed in 9 years of coaching could turn things around for a struggling, but talented, program.

Tonight, we would find out.

Last year's game was one of the best I've ever witnessed. Ranburne was outmatched in every facet of the game, save one: they believed they could win. After 8 years of total dominance, no one in blue and orange thought  the Dogs had a chance. They had no respect for the boys in Purple or the Offensive Coordinator they'd worked with for years. They were unprepared for the plan he had to attack their weaknesses. And it cost them.

This year, they would not make the same mistake. Yes, people remarked about how Ranburne hadn't "played anybody." But, they'd played everyone on the schedule. That's all they can do; play the teams in the order they drew them. Not only had they played them, but they had beaten them. Every one.

So the Dogs rolled into Woodland Friday night 5-0. Undefeated. And on a much leveler playing field than last year. This time, they would face a team very much their equal. And the mutual respect was evident early. The Cats hadn't overlooked or underestimated their rivals tonight, coming out in a defense they hadn't shown all season.

Coach and I had talked about the game all week. He'd discussed his game plan. He told me that there would be "no tricking them" this year. This time, it would be about who makes the right call at the right time and who doesn't make a mistake at the wrong time.

Ranburne took the opening possession and drove the ball down the field and struck first. 7-0, Dogs. That's when the defense took over. They fought and battled and kept Woodland out of the end zone, despite their having better field position. But the Dogs couldn't get anything going on their next 4 possessions. We didn't score. But we didn't turn it over either. We kept ourselves in the battle.

Then, when Woodland's offense lined up to go for it on 4th and 6 from the Ranburne 26, they made their first mistake, giving up a sack at the 34. The Dogs got the ball with under 2 minutes to go in the half and the OC made one of those "right calls". Sophomore QB Dylan Wiggins found Kyle Lovvorn on a 66 yard TD pass, giving RHS a 14-0 lead.

It looked like Ranburne might be taking control of the game. But Woodland hadn't been waiting 364 days to go down without a fight. They got the ball with 1:22 left in the 2nd and marched right down the field, making the halftime score 14-7, Ranburne.

Woodland found the endzone again on their first possession of the second half, tying the game at 14. The Dogs were moving the ball, and it looked like they would answer. But the Cats defense came up big when they met the Ranburne back as he took the handoff, forcing a fumble. Our turn to make a mistake. The defense held again. But the offense made another mistake on their next possession, throwing an interception in Wiggins's only bad decision of the night. And Woodland made us pay to the tune of another touchdown with 3:46 remaining in the 3rd. Cats on top, 21-14.

My heart sank a little. Ranburne had struggled a little moving the ball. And while all the air didn't go out of our sails on the visitor's sideline, you could feel everyone tense up just a little. The orange-clad chain gang members started complementing the progress Ranburne's team had made, saying, "Y'all have come a long way and have played hard. Y'all should be proud."

But this game was far from over. Because, while our young Dogs haven't been in the same caliber of games that Woodland has over the last few years, they know something about battling. They trust each other. They don't get rattled. They manage the pressure.

Ranburne's offense attempts to answer. They drove all the way to the Woodland 9 before turning the ball over on downs. The Cats have the ball, the lead, and what seems like control of the game. But 6 plays later, it's their turn to make a mistake. They fumbled on 3rd and long, putting the ball back into the hands of the Dogs' QB who found Brayden Wilson for a 39-yard TD reception on the next snap. And just like that, it was tied at 21. 10:21 remaining in the game.

Woodland got the ball back with plenty of time to try to score. But 7 plays later, Kyle Lovvorn intercepted Adcock's pass, ending a potential game-winning drive. Then the teams traded 3-and-outs. Ranburne got the ball again and managed 4 plays before having to punt.

Time was running out. The game clock fell under 3 minutes as the Cats began their drive on their 38. The first play lost 3 yards. They gained 7 on the next snap. Everyone in purple was holding their breath. On 3rd down from the 43, Adcock drops back to pass and is picked off by Dylan Tullis. The Dogs have less than 2 minutes to work with.

Six plays later, aided by an incredible catch by Lovvorn, the Dogs find themselves at the Woodland 15.   Coach makes a gutsy call on a reverse pass that sailed just over the head of an open receiver in the end zone. The Dogs got 2 more shots at 6, but came up empty. The clock hit zeroes. We were headed to overtime.

Woodland won the toss and Ranburne's offense lined up. The first-down run gained 2. A second-down pass gained 2 more. We picked up one more on 3rd down. Then on 4th and goal from the 5, Wiggins found Dylan Tullis open in the end zone for 6.

And this is why you can't take anything for granted. In sports or in life. Our PATs have been pretty solid all year. But, one Bulldog fails to take one step, and the PAT is blocked.

Woodland hands the ball off 4 straight times. On 4th and goal, they finally get in. All they had to do was kick the PAT. But, again. Nothing is guaranteed. A high snap sails over the kicker's head and the Dogs are still alive. And they would not leave the outcome to chance.
Whittle sacks the Woodland QB

Woodland lost 2 yards on 1st down. They picked up 4 yards on 2nd. On 3rd and 8, Brady Whittle came through the Cats O-line untouched and nailed the QB for an 8 yard loss. It was 4th and 16. Adcock scrambled and threw a desperation pass into the hands of Ranburne's Kyle Lovvorn. The Bulldog faithful went NUTS!!!

It was our turn. The "unproven" young team would take the field one more time in the biggest game of their lives so far.  The Dogs gained 2 yards and 3 yards on first and second downs, respectively. Then, on 3 and 5, QB Wiggins sprints left, spins to avoid pressure, plants his foot and throws a dart to Kyle Lovvorn in the end zone. Dogs win. 33-27.

Ranburne players and fans rush the field. The Dogs had "played somebody" now. It was a hard-fought win. It was more than that. It was proof that these guys are buying in to what their coaches are teaching. It was evidence that hard work does pay off. It was a turning point for this program. It was young players growing up in front of your eyes. It was a community with renewed pride in their "boys". It was a night those guys in the purple and white will never forget.

For Coach, it was a bittersweet homecoming. He genuinely loves every kid on that field. Of course he wanted to win. But, he also hurt for his former players. He knows how hard they work, what it means to them.

I know it's hard to convince those with the lower number on the scoreboard of this, but games like that don't have losers. When you come out and leave it all on the field, you never truly lose. As I watched the celebration of one team and the heartbreak of another, I couldn't help but think about how we'd better make sure to enjoy the victories in life. 8 straight years, Woodland did whatever they wanted to Ranburne. It was hard to imagine a day where the two teams would battle it out and Ranburne would come out on top. And tonight, it could have easily been the Dogs who fell short. In life, there will be failures and disappointments and heartbreak. But there can be victories too. And as my Daddy always says, "How sweet it is!"

It's great to be a Ranburne Bulldog!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Un - Pleasant - ries

Week 2 of the 2013 season brought the Pleasant Valley Raiders to Harlen Robinson Stadium on Friday night to open region play.

Just a few years ago, PV was known for losing streaks. They broke a 13 game streak in 1997 with a win over Bibb Graves High School. From 2003-2006, the Raiders lost 31 in a row. In their 32 seasons of playing football, PV has an all-time record of 82-229. But, they're getting better. In the last three seasons combined, the Raiders have won 12 games. Last season saw PV's largest margin of victory (55 pts) in school history. But the only statistic that mattered to the Ranburne faithful this week was the Dogs' 20-19 loss to the Raiders last season, a loss that effectively kept RHS out of the playoffs. The Ranburne fans showed up Friday night looking for a little revenge.

The Dogs took the opening kickoff, but fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. PV took advantage of the turnover and put 6 on the board, missing wide right on a PAT attempt. On their second possession, the offense got in their own way again with a pre-snap penalty on the first play. After starting 1st and 15, the Dogs were forced to punt.

After a stop by the Ranburne D, the offense began their 3rd possession at the PV 17 late in the first. This time they were able to put together a series of first downs and found themselves facing 4th and 2 from their own 9 yard line, down by 6 as the first quarter ended. 

QB Wiggins handed off to G.W. Caldwell to open the 2nd. Caldwell was met at the line but drove forward, collecting white jerseys and dragging them into the end zone. Touchdown Ranburne! The PAT was blocked, tying the score at 6. 

Both teams traded possessions without scoring. Then, PV mounted a drive and put 6 more on the scoreboard with 1:14 remaining in the half. The Raiders took the lead, but the dog fight was starting to wear on them. It was on this drive that I noticed a few of their players taking extra shots after the whistle. One in particular couldn't get off the ground without shoving our defender back into the grass. They seemed to gain a little momentum and some attitude to go with it.

But, the half wasn't over. Dylan Tullis took the kickoff all the way down to the PV 6 yard line. Two offsides penalties by the Raiders, 2 Ranburne timeouts, and 4 snaps later, the Dogs got into the end zone again for 6. A failed two-point conversion attempt sent both teams to the locker room tied at 12. 

I imagine the discussion the the visitors' locker room sounded something like this: "We get the ball first. Let's run it right at them, right up the middle, until they stop us." 

To open the 2nd half, PV handed the ball off up the middle for a 1st down, then again for another, and a third time for a TD. And when they got the ball back after a Bulldog punt, they handed it off again. This time, the back was met by a purple jersey for a 1 yd loss. 

It was definitely a dog fight. Neither team willing to yield. Neither team playing perfectly but doing what they had to in order to stay in the game. Several times, I thought our boys might be ready to lay down. They were hot. They were exhausted. But they never lost their cool. They still had some fight in them. So did the Raiders, but it was a slightly different kind of fight. 

They were overly nasty, but if you paid attention you could see it. It was in the way a PV defender clapped his hands in the face of a Ranburne Offensive lineman flagged for holding. It was in the way that their QB threw the ball in the face mask of the Bulldog player that hauled him down on a running play. And while those seem like little things, they could add up to something big. It has to do with sportsmanship.

Football is a violent, physical test of strength and will. I can only imagine how hard it is to keep your head on straight out there. But you have to. Players and coaches have to. You can't let things get to you. You have to respect the opposing team if you respect the game. It's not personal. Go at each other between the whistles. But when the game is over, you're all the same. 

Sportsmanship is on the forefront of our minds in Alabama this week in the wake of the post-game, sideline brawl between coaches at Walker and Cullman High Schools last week. And I believe the Walker coach said it best in his address to his former team: 

"You know that sportsmanship comes before the passion and emotions of the game." 

Sports can bring out the best and worst in people. I was proud of the sportsmanship and maturity displayed by the boys in purple last night. They weren't baited into fights by the other players. They didn't react or retaliate. They didn't have time; there was a game to win. And while the PV players showed a little frustration, they handled themselves respectably under the pressure.

When the clock hit zero, the teams were tied at 26. PV won the toss and elected to play defense first in OT. Two snaps later, Ranburne was in for 6. Kicker Jake Howle's PAT was good. 
The Ranburne sideline celebrates the OT win

But, it only took the Raiders 2 snaps to answer. PV had had all they wanted and decided to end the game right then by going for 2. Their QB took the snap and rolled left. He had nothing but green in front of him. He raced toward the end zone, but Devin Rehburg and Dalton Wiggins came from nowhere and met him on the 1. The 2-point conversion had failed. The game was over. Ranburne 33, PV 32.

Both teams and their coaches met at mid field for prayer. And as the Raiders headed to their dressing room, they were met by a crowd of Ranburne fans patting them on their backs, congratulating their efforts, wishing them luck. Sportsmanship, see. Remembering that those opponents you wanted to beat so badly on the field are just kids, like our kids, when the final play has ended. Despite the loss, they'd played hard. They deserved our respect. 

I overheard a PV cheerleader complain as she exited the field, rolling her eyes,  "Is all THIS really necessary?" This? This crowd of people waiting here to congratulate their team and yours? This display of respect and admiration and appreciation of these young men who had battled it out over the last 3 hours? This celebration of a hard-fought victory?

I wanted to say, "Yes, young lady, it absolutely is. And you'd do well to remember that."

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Alma Mater

On a hill in Alabam'
Life's beacon shining bright
The stately walls of Lineville High
Rise glorious to our sight

So here's to you, ol' Lineville High
Our Alma Mater true
We pledge in love and harmony
Our loyalty to you

It's been more years than I care to say since I stood at a pep rally with my 11 sisters in red and black and lead our student body in the singing of that alma mater, but I still know every word, every note. And, as I sang it on the field after the final football game of the season, I had know way of knowing that I would never hear it played again. Looking back, we didn't play it enough.

After the 2011-2012 school year, Lineville High School closed its doors forever, consolidating with that other high school in the county to form Central High School of Clay County...or some version of that name that was finally agreed upon. I'm not really sure. And, I assume they have a new alma mater, but it isn't "my" school, so I don't know.

I'd known about the consolidation for years, but I really didn't think much of it. Then, at the beginning of LHS's final year, I stood at a pep rally at another school. I listened to the coach talk about how Lineville had been "our" opening football game opponent for years and years, and this would be the last time that Cleburne County and Lineville would meet on the field. Then, the band begin to play the alma mater, and it hit me. I would never here "mine" again. I wish I had known that the last time would indeed be the last time. I might've cherished it a little more.

I thoroughly enjoyed my high school years. I was involved in many activities. I took pride in our collective accomplishments. I had fun. Then, I graduated and moved on with the rest of my life. And even though it's been years since I revisited the campus, there was something deeply sad about knowing my school is "gone". You just don't see that coming. You assume some things will always be there. And, I guess they will be. Some things you carry with you. And for those of us with Lineville on our diplomas, we will always be Aggies.

Since that day, each time I heard the CCHS alma mater, I took a minute to appreciate what it means. To me it's just one of the things that unifies a school body. We're a family. Or we should be. We spend more time with each other than we do with our own families. It should be a place where everyone feels safe and welcomed and loved. Even after they've graduated and moved away.

The last time I heard the alma mater at CCHS, I knew it would be the last time. As the notes hung in the air I took one last good look at the thing I loved about that school, the only thing I loved about it, my students. I felt a sadness that I wouldn't be there to watch my Juniors enjoy their year as kings and queens of the hill. But I needed to move on to a place where I felt safe and welcomed and appreciated.

So I found myself in a new "home" for the 2013-2014 school year. And, I couldn't help but feel like I was in the right place. On the first day of school, at the beginning of the first period of the day, a voice began the morning announcements by introducing the young lady who would sing our alma mater. We begin each morning the same way. And while I doubt that all of the students appreciate that, I can't help but think that, in time, they will.

Tonight, wherever you watch the local heroes take the field, if the band happens to play the alma mater, take a second and enjoy it. Don't ignore it. Take it in. For just a minute, be part of something bigger than yourself. And remember not to take things for granted. Because, just like my high school's song, you never know which time might be the last time.

Monday, September 2, 2013


The first game of the season is always a big deal. The crowd fills the stands with high expectations as they await their first real look at this year's squad.

The team is ready too. They've spent a summer sweating and running and lifting. They've spent the last few weeks going at each other in the August heat. They are more than ready to hit someone wearing a different color. They've got the whole season ahead of them. All goals are still obtainable. Dreams are alive.

This year's Ranburne Bulldogs took the field in the season opener against the Mt. Zion Eagles. From the stands, it looked like any game you might see in any small, Alabama town. Nothing earth-shattering happened. Just two teams going head-to-head.

photo credit: Susan Shadinger
Ranburne took the opening kick-off and drove down the field to begin the game. The the Eagles answered with a scoring drive of their own, tying the game at 6-6 in the first. The two teams traded touchdown drives again before the half, sending the Dogs to the locker room up by a PAT, 13-12.

Mt. Zion's offense kept the ball for most of the second half, but they were unable to find the end zone. And, their defense was unable to hold off the Dogs as they punched it in for a 4th quarter TD, giving them a 20-12 lead. MZHS had the ball late in the fourth with a chance to mount a drive. The Dogs D wouldn't let that happen. They forced a turnover on downs, bringing the Ranburne offense back to the field for the victory formation. Final 20-12, Ranburne.

They didn't look great. But, they got the all-important first win. All goals still obtainable; dreams are still alive.

While it looked like your average game from the stands, it was anything but on the field. For the guys in the purple jerseys, there are no average games. They're out there lying it on the line for their teammates, their school, their community while we sit in the stands and laugh and talk and cheer. We see the results of the plays, the scores, the turnovers, the stops. But we don't always fully appreciate the effort these guys give. If we did, we'd cheer a little harder, I think.

I watched those guys Friday night. I watched as young men played offense and defense. There really is something about small town football you won't see in bigger places. Those guys give their all for 4 quarters, with little or no rest. I watched as one player switched back and forth from receiver to corner, constantly running without rest because there was no one who could go in for him. He was tired. He needed a break. But he had to stay in because someone else was hurt. And he stayed in. He never let up. In a society full of quitters, how can you not admire that?