October 8, 2013 10:00:24 PM
West Oktibbeha County High School football coach Danny Crawford begins a bus route each school morning around 5:50 a.m.
Once on the road, he can count on one thing -- a phone call from his mother, Rosie Crawford.
This season, the calls have become more frequent and more serious in nature.
"Every day, she reminds me that we have to accept what we can't control," Crawford said. "She also reminds me that I had an option to leave the school district in May. Since I didn't, it is my job to make this the best situation possible."
These are trying times in both Maben and Crawford.
West Oktibbeha faces county rival East Oktibbeha Friday night in an Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A, Region 3 football game. It is Homecoming for West Oktibbeha. It is also most likely the next-to-last time the two teams play each other in a football game, affectionately referred to as the Oktibbeha County Super Bowl.
Last fall, the Oktibbeha County School District was taken over by the state, due in part to a repeated pattern of under performing on statewide testing. After the school district went into conservatorship, the MHSAA placed the two school's athletic programs on three-year probation. In all sports, neither school was allowed to participate in the postseason last season and will also miss this season and next. The schools are also restricted to a nine-game region schedule in football and a 14-game schedule in basketball.
"It is hard to motivate the kids," Crawford said. "It is hard to help kids get recruited. It is a tough ordeal. I would not wish what we have been going through on anybody. I hope other districts learn from us. It is like staying on a child when they are at home to do their homework and to go to bed early. You have to stay on top of things and get things done. We are paying dearly for it."
For West Oktibbeha, it is a minor miracle the lights will even be turned on Friday night. A year ago, West Oktibbeha won eight games and saw its postseason hopes dashed by the state with two weeks left in the regular season. Already a senior-laden team, the Timberwolves were hit hard by graduation. The potential end of the program led others to change addresses, including Adam Lowrey, who had served five seasons as head coach and is now a junior high coach at West Point High School.
Crawford was already the athletic director and both boys' and girls' basketball coach at West Oktibbeha. He inherited the football duties when the school district found no one else willing to take the job. It did not take long for Crawford to do the math and realize 11 players may not show up for the season.
"We actually went from 17 players to 23 players this season," Crawford said. "I told the basketball players, if they were going to play basketball, they had to play football as well. You have to sometimes do that in 1A schools. Here we had no choice. So this season, the football team is full of ninth- and tenth-graders who want to play basketball. They know if they quit me in one sport, they won't be around for the other."
Thus, Crawford is learning how to coach football. Basketball players are learning how to play football. The players work in the weight room and spend countless hours on the practice field knowing there is no hope for postseason play.
Both West and East Oktibbeha started practice four weeks later than the other MHSAA schools. Each team is 0-4. The two schools have been outscored by a combined 362-27. It is possible Friday night's winner will earn the only win by the two schools this season.
"We try to make it fun every day," Crawford said. "That is the biggest challenge, because this isn't fun. As coaches, we can't waver. Players can't see us break. There have been a whole lot of moments I have wanted to and some privately where I have."
Crawford had a standout sports career at Aberdeen High School, Mary Holmes Junior College and Rust College. His last coaching career stop before Maben was at Ridgeway High School in Memphis, Tenn. Six years ago, West Oktibbeha called and offered him a chance to coach closer to home.
"We have had a tremendous amount of success in basketball here," Crawford said. "Two years ago, we lost at the buzzer at Biggersville in a game that decided who goes to the state tournament. (After the sanctions), the decision to stay or go was tough. I don't blame any of the others who have left. I just looked at it this way -- these kids need love and guidance, too. We don't play for championships. We play to help make these kids winners in the game of life. Graduating high school and being successful in life is the greatest achievement you can have.
"When I look at how special this place is, I wanted to stay. I wanted to continue to make an impact on these young people. Every day, it is hard. That is when I reach out to my mom for support."
West Oktibbeha has won six straight in the series. Lowrey won all five games he coached against the county rival.
"Believe it or not, I feel pressure," Crawford said. "I have never lost to East in basketball. We haven't lost to them in a long time in football. I don't want to be the coach that is remembered for doing that. Even thought we got a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds running around our field house who don't understand what is going on, the coaches are still treating this like a rivalry game. This is the biggest game of the season."
In July 2015, a decision on the future of the Oktibbeha County School district is expected. Most likely, the students from grades 9-12 will be bussed to Starkville High School and the county high schools will no longer exist. Another scenario - though less likely - is rezoning and moving more kids into both the East and West school districts to enhance the percentages of students taking standardized tests at both schools.
Presently, West Oktibbeha has 125 students in grades 9-12.
"We are preparing for this to be the end of our school," Crawford said. "We know change is coming and we will all be elsewhere in two years. For now, we are doing our best to accept our situation. We are doing the very best we can."
And when Crawford needs one more reminder, 6 a.m. will come, Rosie Crawford will call and the reassuring voice of a mother will help carry her son through the storm.
Scott Walters is a reporter for the Dispatch. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter