A few months ago, the Johnson football team was faced with an unenviable decision.
The Knights were coming off an 0-10 campaign, in the midst of a 12-game losing streak, and no member of the team had ever won more than three games in a season. To top it off, Johnson had just been bumped up to Class AAAA by Georgia High School Association realignment.
So, the following was proposed to the team: Continue trudging forth in a new, bigger region where the losses may continue to mount, but where there would still be the shot at a playoff berth. Or, opt out and play two years of nonregion schedules with the hopes of accumulating some wins and positive momentum for the future, but giving up any chance at the postseason in the process.
It wasn’t an easy choice, especially for the Knights’ junior and seniors, and it wasn’t a unanimous vote. But the decision was made to go nonregion.
And so far, as Johnson sits a 3-2 halfway through the 2012 season, it looks like the smart move. But the reasons why go beyond the wins accumulated and the losses avoided.
“It feels good,” said senior running back Cedric Harris, who was initially against the decision to go nonregion, but is starting to come around. “It actually feels like the right decision. If we would’ve stayed in the region, I think it would’ve given us more of a challenge and built our team a little stronger by doing that.”
But the Knights are learning that a strong team starts away from the field of play.
Football is a team sport in the truest sense, and as such, more susceptible to the ebbs and flows of a team’s emotion and attitude. For a strong locker room, good things seem to happen. For a weak one, bad things have a way of snowballing.
And no matter the fortitude of the players, it’s hard to maintain a cheery outlook when the losses start piling up and the hope starts to dwindle.
“You’ve got to understand, we went from a locker room that was in shambles — it’s tough when as a senior class you’ve only won five games in three years,” coach Jason Roquemore said. “And now, if you look at the atmosphere, it’s probably one of the best locker rooms I’ve been around.
“We take a lot of pride in there, and it’s a close, tight-knit group. And those relationships, whether it be from a staff perspective or from kid to kid, player to player, those things really have developed and really have grown.
And that’s what’s the most important thing when you talk about a program.”
Roquemore, a first-time head coach, took over at Johnson this summer when former coach Paul Friel left to take a coaching job in Maryland. “Coach Rock,” as he’s known, brought with him a list of demands he says his new team wasn’t quite ready for.
And though he says the Knights’ attitude has been great from the beginning, it certainly helped matters when the Knights broke their losing streak and knocked off rival West Hall, 19-13, in gritty season-opening win.
“It was a big, emotional game for us,” Roquemore said. “And the momentum off of that was great. I said it five weeks ago and I’ll say it again, I just think it solidified a lot of the things we tried to instill. And it gave us a lot of credibility as far as the things we were asking our kids to do, because they weren’t used to that.”
Since then, despite setbacks versus North Hall and North Murray, the Knights have continued to build.
Behind Harris, the area’s leading rusher who’s well on his way to a third consecutive 1,000 yard season, Johnson won its second game 36-21 over Oglethorpe County and rallied for a stirring 22-21 win in the waning moments of their most recent game at East Hall.
Now with only five games remaining, the Knights are playing with an eye on the future, when perhaps the momentum gained in 2012 will pay off in playoff berths in 2014, ’15 and beyond — but don’t think that they’re not focused on the present.
Senior lineman Mason Borders said he’s prepping each week like he’s getting ready for a playoff game. Senior slotback/linebacker A.J. Millwood has his sights set on a win over Chestatee tonight and a 3-1 mark against Hall County foes.
Tonight’s game against a War Eagles team that appears to be on the rise won’t be an easy one, but regardless of the outcome, the Knights are positioned well to earn their first winning record since 2004. And playoffs or not, that’s an achievement these seniors can be proud of.
Just as importantly — and whether they realize it or not — they’re playing for the future of Johnson football.
Winning is contagious.
For an example, see North Oconee. The program launched playing a nonregion scheduled in 2004 — the same year the Knights last made the playoffs. The Titans when 0-10 that year and 1-8 the next. But with one good season, their fortunes turned. They went 7-3 in 2006, 9-1 in 2007, and when they moved into region play they hit the ground running with a 9-3 record, and haven’t had a losing season since.
Of course, no two programs are the same, but it can be done.
“The biggest thing is that our seniors understand how important it is to get us going back in the right direction,” Roquemore said. “So, year in and year out, that goal is going to override any postseason goal — the legacy that those guys leave. They’ve had to endure a lot here. For us to kind of have what little success we have had, it’s been a big testament to what they’ve done and the way they’ve bought in.”
Count senior linebacker Jose Martinez among the Knights who believe in their coach’s words. Asked what he was playing for this season in lieu of a playoff berth, Martinez said, “to set an example for the younger guys and put our stamp on it.
“Let them remember what the seniors did here.”
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @thebholloway.