On Friday night two weeks ago, one of the first cool nights of the fall, several hundred fans gathered at the Shoals Christian football field.
About 20 minutes before kickoff for the team’s homecoming game against Phillips, children of varying ages formed two lines for the team to run between onto the field. Several high school boys painted their chests and put a player’s number on their back.
A toddler with a red and yellow pom-pom walked onto the field to join older kids. When he got tired halfway, an older girl picked him up and set him in front of her in one of the cheer lines.
Shoals Christian is called the Flame, and 12 minutes before kickoff a woman carried a torch to midfield while the theme from Chariots of Fire played.
There was no indication Shoals Christian and its opponent Phillips were both winless.
For the football teams those fans were there to watch, however, this season has been frustrating. Each has since won a game — Phillips won that night, and Shoals Christian beat Cherokee last week — but players on each team entered that game wondering when their losing streak would end.
Football teams at small schools are especially prone to and ill-equipped to handle injuries, transfers, kids choosing not to play or classes that aren’t as athletic as others. Invariably, some teams struggle enough that playoff outlooks get bleaker, morale falters and the season becomes less fun.
When that happens, players have to find new sources of motivation.
Cherokee coach Lymos McDonald, whose team is the last remaining team in the TimesDaily coverage area without a win this year, said football teaches a life lesson because some days you won’t like the way things are going.
“You have to get up and go to work,” he said.
A bit of relief
Phillips led the entire night two weeks ago and beat Shoals Christian 27-14. The frustration the Flame felt missing a chance at that first win was matched by the relief of the players and coaches at Phillips.
Ken Edwards, a senior quarterback and defensive back for Phillips, acknowledged when asked that there were moments earlier this year he struggled with being motivated to take the hits and handle punishment before reward had come.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Edwards said. “(But) I just think positive. I mean, it’s my last year. I’ve got to give it all I can. If I want to play at the next level, I’ve got to step it up.
“I always put that in my mindset: My team chooses me as a leader. So I have to prove them right. I have to help my team out the best I can.”
Phillips coach Adam Lawler said one of his challenges through the early part of the season was keeping his players enthusiastic and focused after losing early games against the dominant teams of Class 1A, Region 8 — Mars Hill and Waterloo.
“It’s not easy, and being a first-year head coach I’m learning as I go on some of that stuff,” he said.
Phillips has an outside shot at a playoff spot with a win next week at Cherokee. Whether or not the Bears qualify for the eighth year in a row, however, they hope to improve in 2020 and beyond.
“I was starting five ninth-graders out there tonight and two eighth-graders,” Lawler said. “So those guys are going to benefit from these reps come next year. So that’s the goal - keep those young guys getting better by the end of the year this year, and it’s going to help us in the long run.”
Setting an example
Four days after their loss to Phillips, Shoals Christian seniors Nicholas Edmonds and Caleb Vardaman talked about leading their team through a tough season. Edmonds, an offensive lineman and linebacker, and Vardaman, a tight end and linebacker, are two of the team’s seven seniors.
The team has 22 players, and several are middle-schoolers or high school freshmen. Edmonds and Vardaman said they are deliberate to point out the good things their young teammates do and they try to stay patient as they correct mistakes.
“It can be frustrating,” Vardaman said. “ … I feel like it’s better to handle it one on one than in front of the team.”
Shoals Christian’s first-year coach Kelly Rushing said the team’s seniors have done a good job keeping morale up. He has called timeouts late in games even when Shoals Christian had no chance of coming back — not only to create opportunities for a confidence-boosting play but also to reinforce the importance of giving full effort the entire game.
“We can’t control our size, our speed, how many players we’ve got on the team,” Rushing said. “But we can control that attitude and effort.
“So far —for a team that hasn’t won a football game yet – our attitude and effort have been positive.” (The Flame beat Cherokee three days later.)
Edmonds said each week — win or lose — he tries to concentrate on the week ahead and see it as a new opportunity.
“These next two (weeks) we have great opportunities,” Edmonds said before last week’s 34-20 win over Cherokee. “We’ve lost a lot, obviously, but I think we have a really good opportunity and kind of have to put that behind, learn from the previous week and keep yourself going.”
This week Shoals Christian plays Vina, which has also struggled in recent years, and SCS players hope to wake up Saturday on a two-game winning streak.
“It’s tough when you’re trying to build a program and you don’t get that reward of the win,” Rushing said.
Near the top, then a drop
In 2017, Cherokee was runner-up in Class 1A, Region 8 and became one of two local teams to advance to the state quarterfinals.
But a star quarterback from that team, along with several other good players, graduated. Three other players who would otherwise be stars for the current Cherokee team have since transferred and now start for other schools. A few players quit football.
McDonald, the fifth-year head coach, also wonders why other students who once might have been interested in playing aren’t interested anymore.
But he emphasized he is not upset with any player whose parents decide he should transfer.
“People have to do what’s best for themselves,” he said. “ … I love every kid that left.”
The Indians are 0-7 and have three chances — against Hackleburg, Phillips and Sheffield — to avoid their first winless season since 1945, according to the Alabama High School Football Historical Society.
“This Monday (at practice) might have been the one we were down the most,” McDonald said. “We still had a chance mathematically (to make the playoffs) until our loss to Shoals Christian.”
With that goal out of reach, Cherokee must work toward the future.
McDonald has eighth-graders starting at all three levels of defense, and he sometimes has to explain or demonstrate basic concepts older players already know.
But there is payoff for this kind of assignment McDonald can appreciate. One of his eighth-graders “couldn’t make an open field tackle to save his life” at the start of the year, but that player can now do that in the junior varsity games.
And while he might not be making that play against a varsity player yet, he’s in the right spot and should benefit next year from playing 10 varsity games and seven JV games this fall.
“I don’t know if I could have stepped on the field as an 8th grader at Hazlewood High School and been competitive,” said McDonald, who eventually played in college.
McDonald knew the challenges this team would face.
“There was always some kind of hope and belief in me that we could overcome (it) record-wise,” he said.
After playing for Hazlewood, McDonald led the 1999 Courtland team — which entered the playoffs 4-6 — to a state championship in his first year as a head coach. He won 17 playoff games in 10 years leading Courtland/R.A. Hubbard.
He chose to coach at Cherokee knowing the school had an interest in restoring its tradition. The Indians had missed the playoffs 12 years in a row before McDonald took over in 2015, and he guided Cherokee to three playoff appearances.
“I learned a new way to look at the game,” he said … “as opposed to if I stayed in that environment (in Courtland) where it’s championship or bust.”
McDonald is retiring after this year, so he realizes he might close his coaching career with a winless season.
“This is a chapter in my book, but it’s not the title,” McDonald said of this season, seeing a lesson for his players. “I try to get them to see that.”
Playing with pride
Lawler is just beginning his time as a coach, and he’s still learning how to best lead this Phillips team that had a thin roster to start with that got thinner after a few early injuries.
“I try to be tough on them some days and I try to be the guy that’s in a good mood and kind of motivate them and just push them along on other days,” Lawler said two weeks ago.
“I haven’t found out which one works best yet. But I’ve gotten as far as I have in anything in life with my work ethic. That’s what I tell my guys. You’ve just got to keep working.”
Rushing has reminded Shoals Christian’s seniors they are contributing to the first stage of the team’s resurgence. Edmonds and Vardaman will have graduated by the time Shoals Christian makes the playoffs in football, but the team's eventual playoff bid will reflect their work and they hope it’s sooner rather than later.
“If (younger players have) that motivation and we come back in a couple years and they’re out there working hard and having success, that would make me just as excited,” Vardaman said.
“I love this school. It’s like a home to me,” Edmonds said. “Everyone’s a family. The school is so close. It’s a great community. I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else.”