Having already diagnosed the problem, David Barger went about remedying the woes of a once-proud Central High School football program with an unorthodox approach. While most high school teams end each practice by running sprints, Barger began each Purple Pounders preseason practice with sprints and conditioning.
He felt that if the players learned to execute while tired, they would be able to do the same in games.
"In my three years here, the biggest obstacle we've faced is how to handle adversity," Barger said. "It seemed like we would play well for a while, but the reputation of the program was that if things went against us, the team would fold and quit. We had to find a way to overcome mistakes and fight through tough times."
Barger, who earned statewide respect by rebuilding Lake County's program, had been frustrated by the slow progress of Central's turnaround. But after winning just four games his first two seasons, Barger has the Pounders off to a 2-0 start, overcoming adversity in both games.
In the season opener, Sequatchie County blocked the first punt of the game and recovered it for a touchdown. The Indians extended their lead to 14-6, but the Pounders rallied for a 25-14 win.
In last week's 29-28 upset of District 6-AA foe and state-ranked Howard, the Pounders needed an even later rally. After Howard scored to take a six-point lead with five minutes remaining, Central first stuffed the two-point conversion attempt, then set off on a 65-yard scoring drive that could be both the defining moment of this season and the turning point for the program. The Purple Pounders converted two fourth downs, including a fourth-and-4 near midfield, before scoring with two minutes left.
"We couldn't have won that game last year," said senior linebacker Preston Womack, the Pounders' leading tackler. "We've never known what it felt like to get an upset like that. Coach Barger told us whatever we were doing before wasn't working, so he changed everything.
"Us seniors have only won six games in our first three years, so we talked about how we wanted to go out as seniors and change the way everybody looked at our program."
Womack, Deountre Davis and Jonathan Robinson are among 10 seniors who have taken their lumps with Barger but believe the program's fortunes are changing. Robinson (5-foot-11, 223) is the team's only three-year starter and is being recruited by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee as a linebacker and by Louisville as a fullback. He is the foundation of the team, a 2008 all-region defender and a bruising runner who is built to handle 25-30 carries a game if needed.
Facing a third-and-2 early in last week's game, the Pounders implemented a power-I offense and Robinson not only gained the first down but ran for 20 yards. On a hunch, Barger stayed with the alignment and Robinson finished with 226 yards on 20 carries, including touchdown runs of 60, 50 and 35 yards. That was part of 323 rushing yards against Howard's massive defensive front.
"We have so much more confidence now," Robinson said. "A lot of that is because we have a good group of senior leaders. We're trying to show the younger guys how to get things going in the right direction. Giving up is not an option.
"This is the payoff for a lot of summer conditioning. We want to earn respect and be able to look at people and say, 'I told you so.' This isn't the same old Central."
The Pounders travel tonight to Silverdale Baptist Academy to take on thir third straight opponent that made the playoffs last year. A win over the Seahawks and another next week against a struggling Hixson squad would equal Central's best start to a season in six years -- going back to its last winning season and last playoff appearance.
"We've won our first couple of games on effort," Barger said. "But if those two are our highlights of the season, we'll finish 2-8. I'm the same coach I was when we were losing all those games, but there's a difference in the focus and mentality of these players this year, and we can be a lot better.
"With each game the kids are getting a different swagger about them, and now we're talking about how handling success is as important as how we've handled adversity."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...