Mark Mariakis often has spoken of the benefits of "tough love" and how adversity can bring a football team together. In the future the Ridgeland coach will have a shining example to show his Panthers.
The last week of September was clearly the low point for a young Ridgeland team still trying to hit its stride. The Panthers were still smarting from a 24-17 upset at the hands of Gilmer County, putting the three-time region champions 1-3. Mariakis and his staff spent the next week, the team's open date, trying to bring the Panthers together in time to face Dalton.
However, game week began in the worst possible way. Mariakis had to suspend 10 players, including four starters, for a game in a move that could have torn the Panthers apart. Instead, seemed to provide a new beginning.
Ridgeland fell at Harmon Field, 28-21, but a different team hit the practice field the following Monday.
"It was a turning point for us," Mariakis said. "As young and inexperienced as we were, this could have gone the other way, but it became the moment we came together and matured. As coaches we're about developing young men first and we hope to win football games along the way. Sometimes love is shown through discipline."
It also marked the moment when Darrell Bridges and Vonn Bell became leaders. The two juniors had transferred to Ridgeland and understandably were a little reluctant to assume leadership roles. Bridges, the team's quarterback at that point, took the first step when he approached offensive coordinator Eric Edwards and volunteered to move to the backfield.
It was a tough move for Bridges, who transferred in large part because he wanted to play quarterback. The sacrifice was not lost on his coach or his teammates. Bell, a wideout most of the season in the team's wing-T attack, agreed to move to wingback, a position he had never played, and backup quarterback Trevor Long became the starter.
"That spoke volumes for him and the other guys," said Mariakis, whose team rebounded for a solid 26-14 win over LaFayette before downing Southeast Whitfield 31-10 to improve to 2-1 in Region A-AAA. "It has worked out well and it's still evolving. What it does is get the ball in our playmakers' hands, and it gives us the best chance to win."
A major wrinkle of the new-look offense is the sweep pass in which Bridges takes a toss, rolls out and has the option of running or passing it. He and Bell have hooked up several times already on the play.
"They have to bring sometimes eight guys in the box to stop us, and when I roll out and have the option to pass it to Vonn, it puts the defense in a bind," said the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Bridges. "I didn't mind the switch because I knew I could still make plays at either point on the field and this is what's best for our offense."
The on-field improvement is easy to see, but it's what's happened in the other aspects of the team since Dalton week that's made most of the difference, Bridges and Bell say.
"That week was the week we grew up," Bridges said. "Even though we did lose, a lot of young players stepped up into new roles and we became a team. The intensity in practice and even doing schoolwork and conducting ourselves like we should has improved so much. Everybody is believing again."
Added Bell: "It made us more of a family instead of a bunch of individuals. It takes good chemistry to make everybody click, and we have it now. There are no distractions now and everybody is focused. We're ready now and we're going to keep on rolling."