High School Sports

One town, one community, one team: That focus can lead to victories

Mary Persons quarterback J.T. Hartage (8) and the Bulldogs are 3-1.
Mary Persons quarterback J.T. Hartage (8) and the Bulldogs are 3-1. bcabell@macon.com

Peach County and Mary Persons have years of tradition and winning to lean on. Jones County is trying to get there.

The head coaches at all three programs are aware they have an advantage most coaches would relish.

With one high school in each county, Peach County, Mary Persons and Jones County, along with Crawford and Twiggs counties in the area, don’t have to fight for players, resources or fans like the schools in Bibb or Houston counties do. Counting private schools, Bibb County has 12 football-playing schools, while Houston County has six.

That offers challenges and hurdles, although some schools have been able to overcome that with rousing success through the years with Northside and Warner Robins coming quickly to mind.

On Friday, Chad Campbell’s Peach County team faces off with Brian Nelson’s Mary Persons team in Forsyth, and there’s a good bet that both communities will turn out in full force to support their teams.

“I love it. I know Nelly loves it, too, up there at Mary Persons,” Campbell said. “You’re one show in town. You don’t have to share anything. You don’t have to worry about a kid, the way things are these days, getting mad and transferring next door. It’s great, especially on Friday nights. You don’t have to share your community, your county with other schools.

“It unites the community, I believe. I think it’s a special place, and it’s special when you can do that, especially with a bigger school.”

Peach County has taken advantage of that. Since 1970, Peach County has a record of 378-170-6, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association website, and has won three state titles (2005, 2006 and 2009) and 15 region titles.

Campbell took over as the Trojans’ head coach in 2007 and in addition to the one state title, has led the program to five region titles and 109 wins.

Mary Persons has had an even longer run of success, winning 591 games, 17 region titles and one state title (1980).

“That’s one of the biggest things — all your resources are focused toward one place, and you’re not sharing or splitting anything, whether it be gate revenues, or if we want to go buy a tackling sled, we get a tackling sled,” Nelson said. “We don’t have to worry about, ‘If we get one, someone else is going to want one, too.’ From another standpoint, all the kids who go to school in Monroe County, whether it be the three middle schools or wherever, they know they’re going to Mary Persons for high school. They don’t have to worry about it, and the coaches don’t have to worry about it.”

Most of Mary Persons’ success came under legendary head coach Dan Pitts, who won 346 games in 39 seasons as the Bulldogs’ boss. But Nelson has led the team to two region titles and 54 wins in his five-plus seasons, and he said community support is a huge part of the equation.

“Whether you’re going to solicit advertising or whether you’re looking for people to help you with anything, it’s all focused on us,” Nelson said. “The guy at Dairy Queen, he will give us postgame meals or buy an ad in the program, and we don’t have to worry about him being spread thin between a bunch of schools to where he feels like he needs to give four or five schools something.

“At the end of the day, to run a football program, whether it’s support or anything, it takes a lot to operate a football program and an athletic department.”

Justin Rogers is seeing that at Jones County, a program that traditionally hasn’t been able to take advantage of its, well, big advantage. The Greyhounds have a losing record all-time (325-429-27), and they had not made it to the playoffs three straight years until the past three seasons.

Jones County’s 26 wins during that time mark the best three-year stretch in program history, and the Greyhounds are off to a 3-0 start this season as they prepare to face Woodland-Stockbridge on Friday.

“I think there’s a big advantage to being the only game in town,” said Rogers, who led Jones County to its first 10-win season in his debut season in 2014. “I’ve been in situations where it wasn’t, and I’ve been in this deal where, at Harris (County) and here, it is big. Now, how much of an advantage is a direct result of your administration and your system. I think it’s an advantage, but you can make it as big of an advantage as you want or as small an advantage as you want. I’ve been in school systems like that, too.

“So just because you’re the only game in town, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be an advantage.”

Building that advantage can start early with the players in the middle school learning the way the head coach of the varsity team wants things done. That helps the young players be more prepared to play by the time they get to the varsity program. And that can be as simple as being well-versed in the varsity team’s terminology.

“Let’s just go with a two-by-two formation. We call it doubles. Some team may call it ace. One team may call it twin. One team may call it flex,” Rogers said. “In football, heck, everybody runs the same stuff, but if you can start teaching your terminology and verbiage — because football has its own language — the quicker they can pick up on that language, the easier it’s going to be able to make corrections and teach as they get older.

“Now, I’m not teaching language when they are 10th- and 11th-graders. I’m teaching football. We’re working hand placement and leverage and all these things because in the seventh and eighth grades, they were calling it the same thing we are, and they know what we need.”

That helps lead to better players and better teams, and that, in turn, leads to more players wanting to take part and more community support. And all those things help add up to more wins on Friday night.