November 19, 2010 8:46:00 AM
Seniors have played a key role in the evolution of the New Hope football program.
Coach Michael Bradley speaks fondly of the seniors on his first two teams in 2006 and ''07 who helped the transform the program from a one-win doormat to a playoff contender.
The Trojans have learned those lessons well. In the past three seasons, New Hope has won eight, 11 and eight games, and has advanced at least two rounds into the North State playoffs.
This season, 19 seniors have played key roles in helping push New Hope (8-4) through inconsistency early in the season into a matchup at 7 tonight against Ridgeland (12-0) in the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
Linemen Mike Love and Jamar Payne epitomize the Trojans'' blue-collar approach. The three-year starters are like many New Hope players in that they aren''t five-star players who light up recruiting chat rooms on the Internet.
Instead, Love and Payne take a simpler approach: They work hard, they listen, they do what they''re told, and they do their best to carry out those instructions.
"Both of those kids have done a great job of doing what has been asked of them," Bradley said. "They have done a great job taking what the coaches tell them and applying it and giving a full effort."
That has been a trademark of the Trojans the past three seasons, and they will bring that same attitude to Ridgeland tonight in hopes of earning a return trip to the North State title game. New Hope beat Ridgeland 28-21 in the Class 5A playoffs last season before losing in the North State title game to eventual state champion West Point.
Love started at defensive tackle as a sophomore and moved to center on offense. He said he was "the weakest link" when he first joined the varsity squad because he was the youngest player.
This season, Love has played a key role at left guard. The only position he hasn''t played on the offensive line is right guard. He said he has gotten stronger and has done a better job moving his feet. He also has done his best to set an example to newcomers like Lee Pegram and Park Stevens.
"I picked it up and it is a lot easier," said Love, who is 5-foot-10, 270 pounds. "It feels great to be a part of New Hope knowing we are the underdogs every week. We think we are the big dogs, but other people they always think of New Hope as the underdogs. That is all right. That is what we like to play for."
Said Bradley, "Mike Love is a classic overachiever. He goes above and beyond to do the very best he can do. He is not the biggest offensive lineman, the fastest offensive lineman, or the strongest offensive lineman, but he is a good mixture of all of those."
Bradley said Love has molded himself into a leader of the team by working hard in the weight room. He has served as an apprentice to offensive linemen like Jonathan Guerry, who is now at Southern Miss, and Ryan Hollivay, who is at East Mississippi Community College, and has assumed a key role up front on an offensive line that features four seniors.
Bradley said Payne has emerged as a vocal leader who handles the calls for the defense.
Payne started at defensive end and has moved to linebacker in his career. At 6-2, 215, knows he isn''t the biggest player up front, but he doesn''t think about that.
"I use my heart and my mind-set to beat my opponent," said Payne, who credits the coaches for giving him the confidence to be a contributor. "I put my heart into it and give my all."
Payne said he is more vocal this season compared to past years. Bradley, though, said Payne remains a quiet young man but is someone who knows how to say something important at the right time to catch the attention of his teammates
"He is another extremely hard worker," Bradley said. "He has a lot of athletic ability. He plays extremely hard, and has worked extremely hard to make himself a good football player."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.