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!