September 10, 2013 10:46:41 PM
When New Hope High School hired its latest football coach -- Shawn Gregory back in March -- they wanted someone familiar with the program.
Gregory was part of the football, basketball, baseball and track and field programs at New Hope in the mid-1980s. After graduating in 1986, the playing career continued as a standout quarterback at Jackson State University.
After a lengthy coaching career took Gregory all over the southeast, he returned to New Hope as an assistant coach in July 2012. About nine months later, the chance to take over the Trojans' program came along.
"This really was an incredible opportunity," Gregory said. "I had been looking to get back closer to home. Almost all coaches would relish a chance to one day coach at their alma mater."
Gregory saw first-hand the struggles of the Trojans last season. After advancing to the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 5A North State championship game in 2009, New Hope followed that with an 8-5 record in 2010. In the past two seasons, the Trojans played 22 games and won seven of them.
The recent success had allowed the Trojans to have the proper numbers to compete on the Class 5A level. Still, New Hope struggled to form a team identity. Adversity was commonplace and proved difficult to overcome. Sometimes, New Hope struggled to compete and appeared disinterested when the margin on the scoreboard widened.
"We had to work on the attitude," Gregory said. "When you have gotten down, the question is how do you get back up? The kids are motivated. The kids are hungry. Winning is a process and it can take a while to go through that process."
New Hope's recent baseball resurgence has again allowed football to slip quietly into the shadows. New Hope baseball won the MHSAA Class 5A state title for the first time in 10 years earlier this spring.
Now, Gregory's job is to point the football program in that general direction of rarefied air.
New Hope has all the tools possible on offense. Brady Davis is a 6-foot-4, 190-pound junior quarterback. Davis had to grow up quickly as a starter last season. Friday night, Davis threw for 338 yards in a 20-16 defeat to Columbus. Several college coaches were in attendance and taking notes.
The receiving corps has depth and speed. It also has youth. The Trojans moved the ball well through the air but averaged less than one yard per carry on the ground.
If the offensive line can grow and develop, this team could be very dangerous inside Region 1-5A. Gregory says that is the goal. Most likely, he is hopeful but not convinced.
"We have those handful of mistakes every game," Gregory said. "We have some costly penalties (10 against Columbus) and we make turnovers at critical times (three against Columbus). At the same time, we took a Class 6A playoff team to the wire at their place."
Without question, New Hope has made strides. One can tell this team has bought in and is passionate about the win/loss column. For several minutes after Friday's defeat, several players stayed on the playing surface with a dazed, confused look, wondering how a fourth-quarter lead slipped away in the final eight minutes of the game.
Earlier in the game, a couple of skirmishes broke out and personal fouls were assessed. Costing a team 15 yards is a never good thing. Playing with emotion and having an invested concern in the outcome of a game is a good thing.
In its series opener, New Hope battled Class 3A power Aberdeen to the wire, before falling 28-25.
"Each week, when the guys look at the tape, they get a little more sick," Gregory said. "They realize that we are a good football team. We just have to learn how to finish. The last minute of the game can be just as important as the first."
Defensively, New Hope needs a few more pieces. However, the Trojans have very good size and do have some play-makers. A turnover set Columbus up with a short field for the game-winning touchdown.
Depth and conditioning remain a concern, since New Hope's up-tempo, pass-happy offense makes for some very long games.
DOWN TO work
New Hope returns home this weekend and will attempt to secure its first victory against Caledonia. The next contest is an Amory squad, which lost to Aberdeen 39-13 this past Friday.
In short, New Hope has a chance to win some games and build some confidence.
A year ago, New Hope won one region game. Dropping decisions to Oxford and West Point is one thing, losing by large margins to Saltillo and Center Hill is a totally different story.
Gregory feels like his squad can finish in the top half of the region race and return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
To achieve that goal New Hope needs to learn how to win. They understand the concept of winning. Now, the next part is the physical act of doing it.
Scott Walters is a reporter for the Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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