October 1, 2010 10:03:00 AM
New Hope High School players always consider a victory against Columbus High to be special.
Thanks to a touchdown by Cleveland Smith, a 37-yard field goal by Kyle Shannon and a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter, the Trojans beat the Falcons 11-7 on Sept. 11, 1998. The victory helped New Hope avenge a 41-35 loss to Columbus in 1997 and gave it momentum for a playoff run.
But as important as the win against Columbus was for bragging rights, a lesser rivalry, against West Point, proved to be even more important.
Needing a victory to advance to the Class 4A playoffs, New Hope beat West Point 27-14 on Nov. 6, 1998, at home to send coach Andy Stevens'' team to the postseason for the first and only time in his stay at the school.
"I did not know it at the time, but before then the last time we made the playoffs was 1990 or so," said Bob Reeves, who was a senior on New Hope High''s 1998 team and now is an assistant football coach at the school. "I remember it being a special game not only for the playoffs, but also because it was our last home game and it was Senior Night, so it was the last game we got to wear our home uniforms. It was special for a lot of reason."
Time can make regular-season games even more special.
In this case, New Hope''s victory against West Point in ''98 also is the last time the Trojans defeated the Green Wave. The teams didn''t play from 2003-06, but West Point has won the last eight meetings, including two last season when it went on to win the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state title.
New Hope will get another chance to break that streak at 7 tonight when it travels to West Point for a pivotal Class 5A, Region 1 game.
New Hope (3-2, 1-0 region) is coming off a 38-27 victory against Oxford, while the Green Wave (4-1, 1-0) defeated Indianola Gentry 34-8 last week.
These days, West Point and New Hope are two of the top teams in Class 5A. Twelve years ago, though, both programs were searching for their identities. The Green Wave, who were a state power under coach Bubba Davis in the 1980s, were mired in a stretch that saw the program have losing records for eight consecutive seasons. Dating back to 1994, West Point had three coaches before Dennis Allen took over for Tom Goode Jr. in 1999 and slowly revitalized the Green Wave. It wasn''t until 2002, when West Point lost to D''Iberville in the Class 4A state title game, that West Point regained its place as one of the state''s top teams.
Despite that drought, West Point still managed to beat New Hope. The Green Wave beat the Trojans in 1995-97 and shook off the loss in ''98 to string together its current winning streak.
For New Hope, the victory against West Point didn''t help reverse the program''s fortunes. Stevens left the school after the ''98 season and gave way to Rick Cahalane, who was an assistant coach on his staff.
"I wish I would have stayed," said Stevens, who is from Amory, and now is an assistant principal at Caledonia High School. "I left and went to Mendenhall, (where he worked as head coach for two years), and then I went back to Aberdeen (High) and coached there for four years. I thought I was going to walk into a state championship (at Mendenhall). It was the biggest mistake leaving New Hope."
Stevens said continuity in the coaching staff was one reason the Trojans had success (three winning seasons) in his four years. He said the fact that Lowndes County high schools operated under the district''s no pass, no play policy, which prevented students who had failed a class the previous year from being eligible to play sports, made it even more difficult to build a program. As a result, he said his football teams typically had 30-35 kids on the roster when he could have had teams with 60 or 70 players.
Unfortunately, the Trojans suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons before they went 6-4 in 2007, Michael Bradley''s second year as head coach.
Bradley helped the Trojans return to the playoffs in 2008. Last season, New Hope went 11-2, with its only losses coming to West Point. The second came in the Class 5A North Half title game.
While the Columbus rivalry was New Hope''s biggest in ''98, Stevens said matchups between the Trojans and Green Wave are even more important today because they are in the same district and they will have to go through one another to advance in the playoffs.
"That''s the major hurdle they have to cross to get to a state championship," Stevens said "Maybe it is more of a rivalry for New Hope just because of that. I may be wrong."
Stevens said he didn''t know ''98 was the last time New Hope had defeated West Point.
Thadeus Jackson, who was a senior captain and rover (linebacker/free safety) on the ''98 team, also didn''t know that piece of history. He credits Stevens and the rest of the coaches for instilling a work ethic that forced the Trojans to earn everything they accomplished for helping them succeed.
The guys kind of bought into what he believed in and every year we improved," said Jackson, who is an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the NFL''s Green Bay Packers. "(Coach Stevens) always was talking about getting better and executing what you''re doing. He said talent would only take you so far."
A similar attitude carried New Hope last season. That mentality resurfaced last week and provided a spark against Oxford. Reeves said it was "second nature" for the ''98 team to play hard and to play for each other, and he hopes this season''s team feeds off what it did last week to keep that sentiment alive.
Reeves said he sees that mentality in West Point''s program, and he feels there are similarities between how Stevens built his program and how Bradley is building his. He said Stevens and Bradley are passionate about football and Bradley, like Stevens, will do anything he has to do to help his players.
Twelve years after the last New Hope win in the series, Reeves hopes all of the history and similarities between the programs come together to provide a positive result for the Trojans.
"When the guys came out and played like they did (against Oxford) it reminded me a lot of us when I was in school," Reeves said. "The style is different, but, hopefully, we''re working toward where we want to be, and that is a physical football team that is going to come out and play hard and play hard the whole game."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
1. Sykes' faith leads him to coach at Starkville Academy HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. Lessons learned helped Coggin earn promotion COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Mangum wins SEC batting title COLLEGE SPORTS