With success comes a price, and for Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School football coach Todd Windham, there will be a literal price to pay.
Windham's Warriors, following a 15-game losing streak going back to the beginning of last season, have won three consecutive games to get right in the middle of playoff contention in Georgia Region 7-AA. LFO senior running back Bubba Cruz has established himself as one of northwest Georgia's top rushers with 961 yards in seven games, a fact Windham both loves and might well regret.
"We made a little bet before the North Murray game and agreed that he would do an up-down [drill] for every yard he gained under 150 yards, and for every yard over I would do one," Windham said, wincing. "Well, he goes off for 239 and shows up Monday with a whistle around his neck ready for me to make the old man pay up."
Windham used his negotiating skills to postpone payment, and the two have agreed to calculate the totals until after week nine, whereupon Windham will do his drills, if any are left, in front of the student body at a pep rally. Though Cruz has rushed for "only" 260 yards combined in region wins over Chattooga and Dade County the past two weeks, he's determined to see justice done.
"I'll get him," the 5-foot-11, 180-pound two-year starter said. "If we take care of business like I hope we do, I'll have good yards."
Such light-hearted talk was seldom heard at LFO since the 2009 season ended with a playoff loss to Gainesville. An 0-10 season last year shook the program to its foundation and led to the transfer of two of the team's most talented players. The 0-4 start to this season, including three games the team led in the fourth quarter, ripped at what was left of the players' confidence.
Then came the North Murray game. The Mountaineers defeated LFO last year for the first win in the young program's history, another frustrating footnote for the Warriors' lost year. But Cruz and a suddenly jelling offensive line led the way to a victory that undoubtedly saved the season.
"We've played close games throughout the year, but for a bunch that didn't win a game the year before, I think it's important at some point that you win and not just play well," Windham recalled. "They needed to see that the hard work translates into the win, and to finally break through and get that off their back was just a huge relief for them."
Windham had talked about finding an identity in training camp, and the Warriors struggled with that, especially offensively. The coaches tried a little bit of everything before settling on an I-formation base that took advantage of Cruz's hard-running style.
"We needed to find someone we could jump on his shoulders and ride, and Bubba was a likely candidate," Windham said. "When you're not throwing the ball and putting it in one guy's hands against a defense, there are no secrets. He's had five 100-yard games, and he's been getting [defensive] boxes with eight and nine consistently, so he's had a lot of hard yards."
Cruz deflects the praise to a seasoned front line made up of seniors Gavin Wiley and Kelly Payne and juniors Jok O'Barr, Josh Gibson and Steven Lewis. He, like his coach, also has noticed a huge difference in attitude at practice since the breakthrough win a month ago.
"It set a tempo for the last two games we've won," Cruz said. "It got everybody's encouragement up and it let the people in this county know that we can win games and we haven't given up. I've seen a difference in practice. Everybody is playing harder now, and we're looking forward to games."
The Warriors are off today before hosting Sonoraville next Friday. A win against the struggling Phoenix would guarantee LFO a week 10 crossover play-in game for a postseason berth. It's a long way from 0-15.
"Our motto this year is 'Relentless,' and I think we nailed it with that one," Windham said. "We not only started 0-4, but it was in a gut-wrenching way. We know very easily we could be 5-2 or even 6-1, but there is no sense in wondering about what-ifs. And besides, there aren't a lot of people that would have seen us in this position."