Caledonia High School football fans show their support for Michael Kelly, the team’s head coach, and the Confederates during a recent home game. Photo by: Contributed
October 26, 2018 11:10:47 AM
Michael Kelly isn't a "what-if" guy.
After back-to-back one-point losses, it would be easy for the Caledonia High School football coach to offer excuses. But Kelly knows that isn't going to help him and his coaches change a mentality and build a program.
That's why Kelly wants his players to "sell out" at 7 p.m. Friday when Caledonia takes on Itawamba Agricultural High in a Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A, Region 2 game in Fulton.
A win likely would help Caledonia (3-6, 1-3 region) secure the fourth and final playoff spot from the region. Pontotoc and Shannon, who are 4-0 in the region, will play for first place, while Amory (1-3) will try to wrap up third place with a victory against Mooreville (0-4). Amory would win a tiebreaker against Caledonia based on its 35-34 victory last week in Caledonia.
Two weeks ago, Caledonia lost to Pontotoc 28-27 in overtime. But Kelly admitted the loss to Amory stung a little bit more because his team had a touchdown called back with about four minutes remaining. The play would have given the Confederates a two-score lead and would have put them in a much better position to make the playoffs.
Kelly said he was most disappointed that the game was "taken away from them by people that have no accountability." Still, at the end of the day, he said his team had chances to make plays and that the Confederates have to learn how to do it. He said that is on him and his assistant coaches to help the players learn how to do it.
"I am proud of our kids," Kelly said. "They did what they had to do to win the football game. There were some unforeseen circumstances. The ball bounced in the wrong direction. We got a few callas against us. It could have changed the outcome of the game, but we have to win to keep playing.
"This one was probably tougher for me than the Pontotoc game because at the end of the day I thought it was clean. I thought it was officiated well, played well. It was just two good high school football teams duking it out on the field and at the end of the day they made a play and they knocked us out at the end. This one was a little bit tougher because nothing you coach every day determined the outcome of this game. That is hard to swallow."
Talk like that has endeared Kelly and his coaching staff to the players, the student body, and the community. Last season, Caledonia went 0-10. It then went through an offseason that saw its new head coach leave in the spring and the Lowndes County School Board not approve the man recommended to take his place. Kelly was hired in July to try to restore order. The former Columbus High assistant coach has done more than that. He has used wins against West Lowndes, which beat Caledonia in 2017, and New Hope, which snapped a 13-game losing streak in the series, to win the "Lowndes County title." In the process, Kelly has built confidence and revitalized a community behind its football program.
On Monday, The Dispatch received a three-page letter from Caledonia High student Austin Fort with a picture of a sign that read "Kelly>Saban." Kelly said he hasn't talked to Alabama football coach Nick Saban, but he said it is "humbling" to see that kind of support from the student body and the community.
"I told my wife the thing that impressed me the most is there is a young man who is invested in our program," Kelly said of Fort's letter. "He knows his stuff. He knows what is going on. He has some friends who play in our locker room. That is important. ... That tells you we have a healthy culture. We're not there yet. We're not even close to arriving. At least we're getting our head around the corner and looking in the right direction."
Kelly believes Fort has a future in sports writing or writing in general. He said Wednesday two of his coaches have seen the letter and that he planned to write a letter to Fort thanking him for the support.
Kelly has just as strong a belief in his players. He acknowledges the Confederates easily could be 6-3 or 5-4, but they're not. He said sometimes teams, especially one as young as this one, have to learn how to win. That's not going to happen overnight, but Kelly, who said he isn't a "guarantee man," knows his kids are going to work and the community and student body have his word that the team will have a chance to win and that it will give everyone something to be proud of every week.
"Our kids want it real bad," Kelly said. "Our school wants it. I wish you could just walk the hallways. Our kids are asking about it, which I think speaks volumes about where our program is heading. You're changing peoples' perception of it, which is really important to me and our coaching staff.
"I want our fan base to know if we win we have earned the right to get there, and we need their support. If we didn't, we were close. We're going to get it addressed and get it fixed. I think it is just excitement for the future, especially when you have 23 ninth-graders getting dressed right now. Ten or 11 of them have played meaningful snaps. The future is bright for Caledonia regardless of what happens Friday night. I don't say that for our coaching staff or myself. I say that because of those kids, this community, and the student body. I couldn't be more proud of our school and our students."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.