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Falcons, Trojans learning to believe in change


Adam Minichino



A lot of the things Randal Montgomery says when he talks about football make sense. 


Montgomery believes the best players -- regardless of class -- have to be on the football field. The former Hazlehurst football coach also wants his players to aspire to be the best, which is why he intends to set the bar as high as possible and push everyone to reach that goal. 


Montgomery doesn't need a primer about the history of Columbus High to determine his agenda. In many ways, his plan isn't any different than the one he followed when he took over as head football coach at Hazlehurst High. Three consecutive Class 3A state title game appearances later, Montgomery had one championship. Shortly thereafter, he was on his way to Lowndes County to become the new football coach at Columbus High. At Columbus, Montgomery inherits a program from Tony Stanford that has taken small steps forward playing annually against some of the state's best programs. Whether it has been South Panola, Olive Branch, Southaven, Tupelo, Starkville, West Point, Noxubee County, or Aberdeen, Columbus has played strong schedules with mixed results. 


Montgomery intends to change that. The veteran coach knows he won't be able to wave a magic wand and elevate Columbus to the level of a South Panola, which has won 10 state titles, overnight. But he intends to use his confidence, optimism, and energy to move the Falcons up the ladder, and he doesn't want to hear any talk that it can't be done. 


"What I have run into (in his time as a coach) is kids think they know what it takes to win, but they don't exactly know what it takes to win," Montgomery said. "I have tried to make them understand this is what you have to do to be able to get to where you want to go. It has been a process, but I think the kids have really grasped on to everything we do, from the weight room, to the film room, to the practice field. I think we have kind of revamped that and said, 'This is what it takes to get to where you want to go.' " 


Optimism like that is common at this time of the season. Kris Pickle is talking in a similar fashion at New Hope. The former Aberdeen High assistant coach and head coach at Morton is in his first season leading the Trojans. He takes over for coach Shawn Gregory, a former New Hope High player, who wasn't renewed after a 4-7 season. New Hope players said Pickle has used words like "brother", "brotherhood", and "family" to engender an attitude that the Trojans have to come together and pick each other up if they want to reverse the fortunes of their program. 


Both men don't see any reason Columbus and New Hope can't compete with the best teams in the state. Both will have to try to do it this season with new quarterbacks. Columbus will have to replace senior leader Trace Lee, while New Hope is moving on after Brady Davis transferred to Starkville High. 


But neither coach intends to use transfers, experience, injuries, or anything else as an excuse. To them, understanding is a key premise for both programs to take the next step. After all, Columbus broke through in 2012 and advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. In 2009, New Hope played for a Class 5A North state championship. A year later, it was a turnover or two from duplicating that feat. 


Both programs have found it difficult to maintain that success. Last season, Columbus was in position to build on its trip to the playoffs, but it stumbled against teams it was capable of beating (Northwest Rankin, Murrah, Warren Central) because it didn't know how to win. New Hope had comparable talent, especially with a high-powered offense, but the Trojans lost their first two games and their last two games and never found a rhythm. 


Montgomery hopes to instill a confidence in his players that allows them to expect to win every Friday, regardless of the opponent. It's not a cockiness. Instead, Montgomery wants his players to believe in themselves, in the system, and in their teammates. Most importantly, he wants them to fight through adversity. If something goes wrong on one play, don't allow it to carry over to the next play. 


Those comments sound simple, but too many times in the past few years Columbus and New Hope haven't been able to do all of those things to finish a play, or a game. With new coaches and new messages, perhaps this is the year Columbus and New Hope apply the lessons they learn and execute them for four quarters every week. 


"It hasn't been hard at all," Montgomery said. "When I came in the spring, the kids were real receptive. There never was a time when I felt like I was pulling teeth. I think the kids understood what we were trying to do and they were excited about it. I think that is half of the battle, getting kids to be excited about what you are doing. If you get them excited about what you are doing, the rest of it falls into line. 


"We had some fun over the summer. We worked out hard. Some of them said, 'We have never worked out this hard. This is the hardest I have ever worked out.' That is what you want to hear from your kids." 


It remains to be seen if Columbus and New Hope will be able to take the new messages from their new coaches and produce new results. Don't doubt Montgomery and Pickle, though. Call them stubborn. They won't mind. They believe in their plans and their kids and are confident the results will follow. 


"Success reinforces success," Montgomery said. "The kids I had at Hazlehurst had never really been a part of anything that was losing. They were successful in middle school. Some of the classes I had there were able to go to three-straight state championships. They never faced any adversity as a season. I tell people all of the time, when we stepped on the field at Hazlehurst, the kids I had there knew they were the better team. They felt they were the better team, they knew they were the better team, and they knew they were going to win. Did we win all of the time? No. But they had the mentality that when they stepped on the field, regardless of the classification it was, we were the better team. 


"I don't know how we are going to respond to adversity here, but I know when I came in the spring when some things didn't go well I saw some heads drop and some shoulders drop. Even in the summer when we did seven-on-seven, we would get down and some shoulders would drop and some heads would drop. As we went on through the summer, that started to change. I am seeing a lot of that as we go out to practice. When the defense gets the best of us in one or two plays, in the past the offense might have laid down and the defense would continue to get the best of us. We have kind of responded, which is always good. You always want your kids to responding to adversity." 




Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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