West Hall coach Tony Lotti has a three-year plan. It ends with the long-suffering Spartans competing for playoff spots, region championships and more. It’s audacious in its scope and Lotti is absolutely sincere in its implementation.
There’s only one hitch.
“I asked the seniors, ‘what problem do you see with the three-year plan?’” Lotti said.
To players whose high school careers will end in a matter of weeks, the question was rhetorical, posed only to prove a point.
“So I told them they better accelerate the plan,” Lotti said.
It’s been 10 years since West Hall fielded a winning team or reached the playoffs. Many of this year’s seniors were 7 years old at the time. Some of the freshmen who are seeing extensive playing time on this year’s team were only 4.
Since 2002, when the Spartans won nine games in Tim Marchman’s final season on the West Hall sidelines, four head coaches came and went before Lotti arrived as a first-time head coach who said he’s here for the long haul.
Considering what he’s done since he arrived, it’s easy to believe him.
“I never wanted to take a job, just to end up taking another job,” Lotti said. “That’s why I’m here. It felt like coming home.”
When Lotti showed up in January, he found 20-something Spartans returning to a team that had won only five games over the last three years.
So Lotti went to work, making himself a fixture a school functions, ingratiating himself to the community and talking former players who had left the program into returning. A few months later, he ended up with close to 60 on the varsity roster.
He talks unabashedly about winning region championships, drawing more than a few strange looks.
“People looked at me like I had four heads when I started talking about what I wanted to do here,” Lotti said.
And even though they’re only 1-2 after last week’s ice-breaking win over Lumpkin County, the Spartans see reason to believe. They’ve got a young roster, featuring key underclassmen at multiple skill positions and they’re showing improvement each week.
But if they’re to eventually execute Lotti’s three-year plan, any success will be built upon the foundation laid by those who won’t be around to experience the culmination.
Players like Connor Kirkland, Rich Atkins, Chase Jarrard, Xavier Johnson, Keith McCroan, Wyatt Taylor, Michael Meadows, Blake Manning, Damien Millsap and Brandon Horner have key roles to play in the rebuilding of West Hall.
They’re the only 10 seniors that were on the Spartans’ preseason roster, and the direction the program will take is up to them as much as it is to Lotti. They say they understand that, and they welcome the challenge.
“Me and all the rest of the seniors, we have the mindset that the young guys are looking up to us,” said Meadows, a center and inside linebacker, “and we need to do the right thing so that they can have the right mindset when they become seniors, as well.”
The importance of that mindset can’t be overstated, because even if Lotti and his players do everything right, struggles are inevitable. Losses will happen, injuries will occur, adversity will hit. When it does, how will this team react? Will they let setbacks undo all the work they’ve put in, unlearn all that they’ve learned?
“That’s something that’s been a problem in the past, and it has to change,” said Kirkland, the team’s kicker. “And it’s got to change starting with this senior class.”
Jarrard, a receiver and outside linebacker, grew up in a “Spartan family” and remembers when former Georgia Bulldog and Atlanta Falcon Martrez Milner donned the West Hall navy and silver. He said that makes his final season all the more meaningful.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s big time. I want to leave here knowing that we started a new generation at West Hall, that we started that spark that became a big explosion.”
Taylor, a safety, had a similar take, expressing a desire to leave behind a winning record that future teams can build on — but not just for himself or his classmates’ legacy.
“We want to win for him,” Taylor said, gesturing across the desk to Lotti. “You see all the stuff he’s done for us. Got us new uniforms, new helmets, a new fieldhouse, basically.
“It makes everybody come together, more like a brotherhood.”
There’s little doubt that morale is higher these days at West Hall. And Lotti, from whom passion and energy seem to endlessly emanate, deserves the credit for that. But as the coach, he can only lead those who will follow.
If in three years we see progress made in the West Hall football program, credit will also be due to the Class of 2013, who were willing to not only follow, but by doing so also become leaders themselves.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/thebholloway.