Even as Southeast Whitfield High School was enjoying its most successful football season in 32 years, the program's future didn't look very promising.
Sean Gray took over one of Georgia's least successful prep programs in 2012, with the Raiders having a total of 29 wins in the 20 years before Gray, a former Southeast player, used a grassroots approach to get kids at lower levels to embrace the game.
The movement culminated in 2017, when the Raiders won seven games, the end of a four-year run that produced 23 wins and three postseason appearances to go with three all-state players. Gray, however, knew a rough patch was coming because numbers at Southeast's two feeder middle schools, Eastbrook and Valley Point, were drastically down.
After the Raiders went 0-10 last season, Gray resigned to spend time with his family and work on a possible move into school administration. A program in crisis mode decided to begin rebuilding by playing a nonregion schedule in 2020 with longtime assistant coach Todd Murray now leading the way.
Instead of trying to compete with Ridgeland, Heritage and new Region 6-AAAA member Cedartown, the Raiders will play several smaller area teams, including Coahulla Creek, Gordon Lee, Gordon Central, Murray County and Trion. The hope, Coach Murray explained, is that the Raiders can be competitive while major work is done to bring interest up at all levels.
"Our numbers in the middle schools that feed us have been down, so we're trying to get more participation," he said. "One positive aspect of it is we get to play several area schools that we normally wouldn't. The kids are excited to be able to play against their buddies at those schools, and they should be more attractive games for our fans."
To kick-start the effort, Murray will have some familiar help. Gray, at least for this year, will coach the Valley Point team, a move he's all too familiar with and one he hopes pays off a second time.
"One thing I learned is you have to have a good middle school program," Gray said. "Kids have to know how to play football when they get to you at the high school level — how to speak the language, tackle, block, all the fundamentals.
"I came to Valley Point when I left Ringgold (High School), and it was the same situation as they have now. The last three years I was at Valley Point, we went 37-2 and those kids went on to win a lot of games for me at Southeast. If we can get the kids out, get them excited and get them a little success, that will help Southeast have some success."
Gray, who was the head coach at Ringgold for four years (2003-06) and led the Tigers to the state playoffs his first season, knows it won't be easy. While Eastbrook has won a handful of games in recent years, Valley Point hasn't won a game in four years and has struggled to have enough players to field a team. Even more troubling, Gray said, is that the two middle schools had a total of seven players in the seventh grade last year.
"A high school program can't survive with numbers like that at the middle school level," he said. "Todd is going to do a great job at Southeast, and I think the future will be bright. We just need to turn some things around."
Where appearances and attitudes are concerned, that may have already started. Valley Point students will open the school year in a brand new building, complete with a new football field.
"There's a lot of excitement in the community," Gray said, "and now we have a great opportunity to keep our kids in our schools and not lose them to our rivals."