January 11, 2021 11:38:08 PM
Theo DeRosa - [email protected]
The kids made it easy.
After New Hope High School head football coach Wade Tackett resigned this fall, principal Matt Smith and the school's search committee sought opinions from the Trojans' players on who they wanted to lead them next. Quickly, they formed a consensus.
"We've already got our next coach," they told Smith.
That was defensive coordinator Seth Stillman, who stepped up when Tackett stepped down in mid-November by taking charge of the Trojans on an interim basis. Since then, Smith said, New Hope has already seen improvement despite never taking the field.
"We feel like we've already grown leaps and bounds," the principal said.
Now, New Hope will get a chance to do a lot more growing under Stillman. He was officially confirmed by the Lowndes County School District board as the Trojans' permanent head coach Friday.
"The kids had already bought into what he was selling, so we were excited about the possibilities," Smith said.
So is Stillman, a 2010 New Hope High graduate who ran Tackett's defenses for the past three seasons. Now, he'll get a chance to run a football program for the first time.
"It's a dream job for me, and I'm just very fortunate to be able to get to do it at this time in my life," Stillman said. "I'm excited about it."
He, too, knows the importance of getting everyone on the same page -- a test he has so far passed. Stillman said having players buy into a coach's philosophy is "a big percentage" of winning high school football games.
But there's a lot more to it.
High on Stillman's priority list for his team is gaining the toughness needed to succeed in a difficult Region 1-5A.
"We're going to practice tough," Stillman said. "I don't think you can just become tough on a Friday night at 7 o'clock."
Stillman, a star defensive end at New Hope in the late 2000s, knows that plenty well. His toughness came from the family of athletes in which he was raised, and he was well known for playing through pain. Smith, who was assistant principal for Stillman's final three years of high school before taking over as principal the summer after the player graduated, remembers that.
He said Stillman had chronic shoulder pain during his senior year and that the joint often came out of place during games. On the sideline, the senior would grit his teeth, pop the dislocated shoulder back into its socket and rejoin the fray, not wanting to miss any time on the field. He had shoulder surgery soon after his high school career wrapped up.
"Outside of losing a limb, I had every intention to stay on the field all the time," Stillman said.
But the toughness he wants the Trojans to show will come in different areas -- namely, the weight room, the film room and the classroom, he said.
"If you're not completely focused and completely bought in to achieve our goals, we're not going to be successful," Stillman said.
Help is on the way
Of course, it's not all on Stillman to ensure New Hope's success.
The Trojans' new coach is already putting together a coaching staff to help share the load.
Mississippi State standout Johnthan Banks, who coached defensive backs for New Hope this past fall, will serve as defensive coordinator.
Stillman said that when Banks arrived at New Hope, both men realized their ideal defenses were basically identical: a four-man front and the same coverage schemes. The head coach said Banks is a "perfect fit" who will take a "huge piece" off his plate.
At offensive coordinator, meanwhile, Stillman is bringing on a former New Hope teammate who can't wait to get back to the area. Lake Cormorant offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Cameron Olsen will run the Trojans' offense.
"He knows what it takes to win as a player, and he obviously knows what it takes to win as a coach, Stillman said of Olsen. "It's a big-time hire for us to get a guy who's known and has had success everywhere he's been calling plays so we can start putting the ball in the end zone."
For Olsen, in his second stint with the Gators after two seasons at Long Beach High School, the position gave him a chance to bring his five children back to where he grew up -- and work with a former schoolmate both at New Hope and Mississippi State.
"I couldn't think of a better way to go back to New Hope than me and him together," Olsen, a 2008 New Hope graduate, told The Dispatch.
Olsen, who played center, joined Stillman on the 2007 New Hope team that finished 6-4 -- which, while not world-beating, was the first winning season in 10 years for a struggling program at the time.
Under Stillman, he sees similar success on the horizon for a team that won one game in 2018, three in 2019 and two in 2020.
"With me and him, it was an opportunity for us to really get together and make New Hope a winner again," Olsen said.
Always New Hope
Stillman knows the axiom well: If you're from New Hope, then you're always New Hope.
"That's the way any small, tight-knit community is: They love to see their own succeed," he said.
In fact, New Hope alumni are everywhere within the high school's sports programs: Head boys basketball coach Drew McBrayer. Head baseball coach Lee Boyd. Head soccer coach Andrew Olsen -- Cameron's older brother.
As another Trojan-bred head coach, Stillman is well aware of the expectations that come with taking the head coaching job at his alma mater.
He and his staff know they have to get things right. Olsen said he's already mapping out what he plans to tell his players when he starts Jan. 19.
"I have not thought this much about what I'm going to say when I meet them in my career," he said.
Smith, though, made it clear that the school isn't "looking for miracles" -- just wins.
"We want sustained success," Smith said. "We need stability for our kids. But in order to have that, they have to taste success. You've got to figure out ways to win ballgames. We were in ballgames a lot of the time but just couldn't win them."
But above that, Smith said, what he wants is lasting change for a Trojans team now on its seventh head coach since 2000. The principal, whose sons graduated with Stillman, hopes he'll be retired by the time Stillman is done with the program.
"I told Seth my hope and my goal is that I'll be long gone before he is," Smith said.
In Stillman, Smith and the Trojans believe they have the right man to do just that.
"He's qualified," Smith said. "He knows what he's doing, and we're ready to go."
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.