The Ridgeland High School football team has overcome potential distractions and program-defining hurdles to reach the Class AAAA state championship game.
February: The recruitment of All-America safety Vonn Bell reached a new level when Alabama and Tennessee joined Georgia with scholarship offers. After getting more than 30 offers, Bell narrowed his list of choices to Alabama, Tennessee and Ohio State and then refused to deal with any further recruiting issues until after the season.
August: The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter challenging several church activities the team took part in, including coach-led prayer.
September: A season of promise was kicked off with a heartbreaking loss to perennial Class AA power Calhoun. After tying the game in the final minute, Ridgeland couldn't stop the Yellow Jackets from answering with the winning touchdown with four seconds remaining.
November: The program never had advanced past the second round of the playoffs but rode a powerful running game, led by senior fullback Darrell Bridges, to convincing wins in the second round and quarterfinals. Bridges ran for 200-plus yards in each of the Panthers' first three playoff wins.
December: In what became an instant area classic, the Panthers rallied with a 10-play, 77-yard scoring drive in the state semifinal's final three minutes to take the lead, then held on for a one-point win when second-ranked Marist missed a 34-yard field goal at the buzzer. That was a program-record 13th win.
On the day he interviewed for the job more than nine years ago, Mark Mariakis allowed himself to gaze into the future at the football program he believed he could build at Ridgeland High School.
Standing on the hill overlooking spring practice, Mariakis sized up the players, surveyed the game stadium and surrounding facilities and began formulating a plan. The plan's foundation was built on faith -- both Mariakis' religious convictions and his belief in how a successful football program should be run on a daily basis.
"I knew the community was hungry to support a winning program and that once we started having success, we could build off that and do bigger things each year," Mariakis said.
After going only 4-16 in his first two seasons with the Panthers, Mariakis sees his faith become fruition today when the Panthers play for the Class AAAA state championship at the Georgia Dome. Ridgeland (13-1), which has won at least seven games each of the past seven seasons, will take on defending champion Sandy Creek (14-0) at 5:30.
But along the way to today's defining moment, Mariakis' off-the-field faith drew attention. Just before the season kicked off, an anonymous complaint questioned his practice of leading the team in prayer, church involvement as a team and having local churches sponsor team meetings and pregame meals. The Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint against Mariakis for his Christian practices with the team thrusts the program into the national spotlight.
"Our administration did a wonderful job of taking the lead and handling everything surrounding the Freedom From Religion people," said Mariakis' wife, Debbie. "That allowed Mark and his staff and the kids to focus on the field. And the community really opened their arms and showed so much support that it was just very reassuring to feel like everything he stood for as a coach and as a person was being backed.
"Basically, my husband was being criticized for caring too much about the character of the young men who play for him. We prayed for those people who were making it an issue, but I knew Mark well enough to know he wasn't going to let that or anything distract him from doing his job for those kids."
A "Support Coach Mariakis" Facebook page was created, receiving more than 5,000 "likes" in its first four days and more than 10,000 in all.
"To be honest, the Freedom From Religion people just brought us closer as a team," senior quarterback Trevor Long said. "We know what Coach Mariakis stands for, and we all support him and believe the same.
"We decided to just rally around that and show our support for each other and the coaches by concentrating on whoever we were playing that week."
Once the season was under way, the team also managed to avoid another potential distraction with the recruiting frenzy surrounding All-America free safety Vonn Bell. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Bell disarmed much of that possible disturbance by narrowing his choices early to Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee and then refusing to answer any further recruiting questions from the media until after the season ended.
"The demand for his time and mine was overwhelming at times," Mariakis said. "But Vonn is another example of the type kids we have on this team and why we've been so successful. He didn't want anything to derail the season, so he put everything about him to the side.
"That's basically what we all tried to do this fall. From the first time we had something that could've become a distraction, we just found a way to focus on the field and on reach our goals together."