The past few high school football season, it seems like it has taken North Hall a little time to get going.
For the sixth time in the past eight seasons, the Trojans will head into the midpoint of their season either at or below .500, even after last Friday’s resounding 69-0 win at East Hall.
The good news for North Hall, however, is that in all six of those seasons, the team rallied to make the Class 3A state playoffs and finished above .500 in all but one of those campaigns.
And Friday’s win, in which the Trojans (1-3, 1-1 in Region 8-4A) outgained the Vikings 475-119 behind a huge night from quarterback Tanner Marsh (264 yards of total offense and five touchdowns, two on the ground and three through the air) could be an indication that their fortunes may be once again headed in the right direction.
Of course, a better indicator will likely come when they welcome Cherokee Bluff (2-2, 2-0) to Lynn Cottrell Stadium for another key region game this Friday.
Still, there’s probably a more logical explanation on why it has taken North Hall a little time to find its identity and its rhythm this fall in its first under head coach Sean Pender since he took the job in February.
“It’s really taken a while for everybody to learn everything and for us getting to where we need to be,” Pender said. “We still have a long way to go. We have shown, at times, that we’re doing really good and learning everything, but we’ve just been inconsistent. Those inconsistencies that have happened on Friday nights (are) what have hurt us.
“(Last) Friday night, we were able to put it all together and stay consistent. When you stay consistent, we can compete with anybody that we play. It’s when we’re inconsistent that hurts us, and I think … it’s a young team and just takes a little bit of time to jell. It’s a new system, so if you take a young team and not as much experience and you put it all together, there’s going to be a learning curve there. We’re just going to keep improving and keep working to get better every week.”
That learning curve has impacted the team as a whole, as well as the coaching staff, but it is perhaps best reflected by Marsh.
The 6-foot-3, 170-pound junior is not only just learning how to play under the new system implemented by Pender and his staff, he’s really still learning how to play quarterback.
A tight end and outside linebacker for most of his career, Marsh found himself thrown into the fire midway through last year with the Trojans’ junior varsity team when injuries in the secondary forced the starting quarterback Britton Glover into action in that unit.
Despite having only played a game or two under center in youth ball years earlier, Marsh was receptive to giving it a try.
And the experience was enough to make him enthusiastic to try to win the varsity job when Pender began his tenure as coach last winter.
“I was just presented with the offer to (try to play quarterback),” Marsh said. “I was just trying to find something new, and I just got that opportunity. … When Coach Pender came in, … he asked if I wanted to go back to playing my old positions or (stay at) quarterback. I think when (the team) first met him, I told my parents I was just going to try out for quarterback, and I just started training really hard and just trying to learn all that I could.
“When Coach Pender came in, we got right to work in February. We just started coming in at 6 a.m. and we’d do footwork on the field or whether it was throwing or (working) in the weight room or anything. Pretty much since the beginning of the summer, probably even before then, we’ve been doing (a lot of) meetings just watching film on anything that we could find. So it’s been a lot of learning and a lot of training.
It is that kind of work ethic that first caught Pender’s eye, and one that served Marsh well as he battled Glover and incoming freshman Walker Davis during spring practice and throughout the summer.
However, Pender says it’s more than just the willingness to work hard in learning the system, plus his physical skills and gaining the confidence to lead that eventually helped Marsh win the job.
It is simply his force of will, which has also helped him develop into an effective leader for the Trojans’ offense.
“He just wants it,” Pender said of Marsh. “He wants to do it, he wants to learn and he works extremely hard. Again, he’s just a relentless competitor. … That’s what he does. He just works hard at everything he does.”
“Being able to drink the Kool-Aid and believe in the same things we’re teaching helps a lot. When you believe in what it is you’re doing, it’s a big help. And he just has fun doing it. He accepts the challenge. He has that inner drive that helps with it, but whenever you’re excited about something and passionate about it, the more you want to learn, you want to study it.”
Marsh admits that the belief wasn’t always there when he first started working out at quarterback, though over time, and with encouragement from Pender and the offensive coaching staff and his teammates, that belief began to grow.
“Over the summer, I didn’t really have a lot of trust in myself because I didn’t really know a lot about (playing quarterback),” Marsh recalled. “But Coach Pender’s (lessons) about throwing the ball and all that stuff, and I just learned. … It was definitely a combination of a lot of things. Really, it started with just trusting myself and trusting my athleticism.”
After Friday’s win, it seems Marsh and his teammates are beginning to trust and believe in each other.
The Trojans not only got a big game from Marsh, whose 264 yards total offense ranks 10th all-time for a single game in North Hall history, but also from Hunter Riley (10-95, 2 TDs rushing), Ajay Jones (4-117, 2 TDs receiving), Tate Ruth (88 yards total offense, one TD each rushing and receiving) and the offensive line, as well as Will Jackson (2 INTs, TD) and Trey Patterson (9 combined tackles and assists) on defense.
While there are no guarantees things will continue to go as smooth the rest of the year, the all-around performance is enough for Marsh and the Trojans to start believing that maybe they have turned a corner, and continue the trend in recent years of a mid- and late-season surge toward the postseason.
“I just feel like a couple games in, we’re still trying to figure things out,” Marsh said. “But then, I feel like this last Friday, something just clicked. Our offense just stated moving, the defense was stopping the ball. Our O-line is working really hard, and they’ve improved so much. It’s really just a team effort.”