DALTON, Ga. - How important can six weeks be for a high school football program?
Consider the Dalton Catamounts and a stretch in which the long-successful program went from possibly its lowest level in over a half century to being one of the final 16 teams in a loaded Georgia Class AAAA playoff field.
Dalton's struggles began last year when the use of an ineligible player resulted in four forfeit losses and the end of a streak of winning seasons that began in the 1960s.
The Catamounts lost 14 starters off that team, but a strong group of seniors had the program poised for a rebound under second-year coach Matt Land and an experienced coaching staff. Any such optimism, however, was lost when the team started 2-3 this season, the low point coming during the first half against eventual Region 7 champion Ridgeland.
With Dalton down 41-7 and outscored 76-14 over the past six quarters, the fans' talk that night wasn't about making the playoffs. It was more about the direction of the proud program and its suddenly embattled coach.
"Nothing good was happening at that time," senior defensive end and fullback Robert Hardaway recalled. "I think we as seniors had lost faith in ourselves and the team. We played hard in that second half, but what stands out to me about that night was after the game. Coach Land stood up and said, 'Sorry, guys, this one's on me.'
"But we were the ones that had to take responsibility and turn this thing around."
Dalton lost that game 48-21, but a second half in which the Catamounts played hard until the final whistle and the coaches continually yelled encouragement was the beginning of a remarkable turnaround. A six-game winning streak followed, including a 24-19 win over rival Northwest Whitfield the next week, a 42-0 playoff-clinching win over Pickens County and last week's 17-14 upset of Atlanta Carver in the first round of the playoffs.
"The turnaround did begin that night at Ridgeland," Land said. "When we went in at halftime, I told the kids we weren't conceding anything and that I wanted to see who wanted to play and keep fighting. That message resonated with the guys, and it was a different team that played from that point."
It wasn't just the fact the Catamounts were 2-3; it was the way in which they were being pushed around during games and not responding that concerned the passionate fans. While Land's speech certainly caught the attention of his team, he acknowledges that talk alone means nothing unless action follows.
"When a team turns it around, it's not the coaches," Land said. "The guys inside that locker room taking charge and leading their teammates -- that's what made the difference."
Seniors such as Hardaway and three-year starting quarterback Cole Calfee brought the team together, and though the winning streak hasn't been all pretty -- included were narrow wins over 0-10 Heritage and 2-8 Southeast Whitfield -- the fight the team lacked early has been persistent since.
More importantly, according Hardaway, the Catamounts remembered why they play the game in the first place.
"We realized after the Ridgeland game that we had stopped having fun, so why were we playing the game?" Hardaway said. "It's about having fun, and we realized you have to play as hard as you can at all times, but have fun doing it. We just went out and started playing like 9-year-olds again."
That spirit will be needed tonight as the Catamounts travel to top-ranked and 11-0 Sandy Creek, a team with half a dozen top football recruits and two recent state championships. Land insists he has gauged his team, and will continue to, on things other than wins and losses and that he won't waste time worrying about his job.
"I've always believed that if you do things the right way successes will follow, and that isn't necessarily about wins," he said. "We've done that, and I know this program is as strong as it has always been.
"I've only been a head coach for two years, but I've been in the business for 20 years and I played at Auburn. I've seen a lot of things. I remember when [legendary Dalton] Coach [Bill] Chappell had someone put a 'for sale' sign in his yard. You can't worry about those things. Just focus on the kids and taking care of the little things, and the rest will be fine."