November 9, 2012 9:21:06 AM
Tony Stanford has worked for and with a lot of the best football coaches in the state of Mississippi.
Working with coaches like Bobby Hall, Chuck Friend, Bubba Davis, and Mike Justice, just to name a few, has helped Stanford appreciate how far the Columbus High School football program has come in five seasons.
When he and Davis arrived in 2008, they found a program that needed more than a face lift. The Falcons needed to learn how to win and how to play as a team. Columbus has taken small steps in an attempt to realize that goal in the past four seasons. The program won three games in 2009 and four in 2010 before winning seven in 2011 and missing out on the playoffs by a tiebreaker.
This season, it has all come together. Not only is it satisfying for Stanford to sit back and talk about the program's first playoff game at 7 tonight against Madison Central, but he also takes pride in relating an incident from last week's game that proves how far his team has come.
The incident came following a Payne Horan 69-yard touchdown pass to Nathan Evans gave Grenada a 6-0 lead on Columbus. Stanford said seniors Martavious McKinney and Gemriah Williams responded to the touchdown and set the tone on the sideline. Instead of arguing and fussing about it, McKinney and Williams were encouraging.
"That is what we have been trying to build here," Stanford said. "They took it and told him you're a lot better than that and you need to get out there and play that way."
Stanford admitted that wouldn't have happened two or three years ago. He said the players would have been arguing with each other. He and other members of the coaching staff feared something like that could have happened, but he said they backed off when they saw the seniors step in and take charge.
"Your senior class has to be able to control what is going on with your team," Stanford said. "If they can't control what is going on with your team, you're not going to be very good."
Columbus's senior class has responded one year after a class led by Damian Baker pushed the program to seven victories and within reach of the playoffs. Stanford feels this year's seniors used last season as motivation to help the Falcons take the all-important next step.
"I think a lot of it is this group basically came behind Baker's class, and everybody thought Baker and them were going to be the saviors of the program," Stanford said. "They had to sit there and listen to that from the time these kids were ninth-graders until where they are now. They took it upon themselves that they were just as good as that class and that they were going to be the ones to get us into the playoffs to try to get the tradition started."
Senior offensive lineman Jake Thomas, who has given a verbal commitment to play football at Mississippi State University next season, said he didn't hear McKinney and Williams talk to their younger teammate after the touchdown. But he said leadership like that has been molded over the years and has been a key to the program's maturation.
"We have had a great mentality about the whole thing," Thomas said. "There hasn't been somebody who has tried to take over and play their own game. We all have worked as a team this year.
"It definitely shows we have come a long way. Our team a couple of years ago would have been doggin' him out, telling him how terrible he is. Now we have each others' backs."
Junior quarterback Trace Lee has been around the program for years. His brother, Tyson, was a quarterback on the team before he moved on to Itawamba Community College and MSU. Trace Lee, who split time last season with Cedrick Jackson, feels the football team's performance has lifted the community and proved it can compete against perennial Class 6A powers like South Panola, Olive Branch, and Southaven.
"(The community knows) Columbus is getting better every year, and being consistent is one thing that has helped us in the community," Lee said. "They know Columbus is going to have a winning program and we're going to do this and we're going to do that. This is the first step of many. We're establishing the stepping stones for people behind us to come. We are setting the stones so they can come and get even higher than we were."
Stanford feels the 41-21 victory against Grenada last week was the most important thing to happen to the program since 2005, the last time it advanced to the playoffs. He credits all of his players to not giving in to injuries and close losses to give Columbus a chance to prove itself tonight against Madison Central, another one of the state's perennial powers.
"I really think they had a chip on their shoulder," Stanford said. "They wanted to prove to everybody here in Columbus they were just as good as any group that has gone through it. They have really worked hard at it. They have pulled themselves together. They are probably as close as any group that we have had since we have been here.
"I think our kids will show up and play hard. They're an established program. We're the new kid on the block. They have been in playoffs every year. Either they get stopped by South Panola or they beat South Panola. They have won one state championship since their school opened, and their school probably ain't much different from our school in age. They won one, and that was with Mike Justice. I hate to break your heart they didn't throw a pass in the state championship game. They were smash, smash, smash mouth. Bobby Hall's game is option. He has been option all of his career We're going to see a lot of option and throws the slants."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.