KICKOFF 2011: Six schools, one mission

Albany High quarterback Emmanul Byrd says he's ready to turn things around at Albany High, where the Indians  -- like several teams in Southwest Georgia -- are ready to turn the corner this season.

Albany High quarterback Emmanul Byrd says he's ready to turn things around at Albany High, where the Indians -- like several teams in Southwest Georgia -- are ready to turn the corner this season.

Turning the corner ...

The cliche is as old and worn out as black-and-white TV and eight-track tapes, but it's alive and well here -- here on the high school football fields of Southwest Georgia, where it's more than a cliche or quick-hit phrase.

It's a way of life.

Or at least the way to a better life.

Just ask them at Lee County, Albany High, Westover or Dougherty, where Xs and Os share the same blackboard with rainbows and the promise of a new beginning.

Or ask the kids and coaches at Deerfield-Windsor and Westwood, where it isn't about turning the corner to a better and brighter future, but learning how to negotiate the toughest corner in sports, the one that sits in "The Year After" neighborhood, where turning the corner means defending a title for the first time.

Both corners come with more of a mental than physical challenge, but you can't win without both, and coaches at these schools know it takes so much more -- whether you are building from the ground up, or defending something that was just a dream a year ago.

At Dougherty High, turning the corner isn't a way of life. It is life to Jesse Hicks, who has all but vowed to lift the program not just to greatness, but back to greatness.

"We're the only city school to ever win a state (GHSA) football championship,'' Hicks said. "We want to be great again.''

Hicks has the road map.

He turned the program around at Baldwin, where he took the football team from being also-rans to becoming a state power, and now he's trying to do the same at Dougherty, where he preaches from a pulpit of self-confidence and self-esteem and promises to turn not only the football program -- but the community's perception of the program -- around.

"We want to bring pride back to the East Side,'' Hicks said. "We want these kids to be successful not only on the football field but in the classroom and in life. That's what we're teaching. I know it can happen here.''

Hicks had a rough start in his first season, going 2-8, but said last year was more like "Zero Year" than Year One.

"The biggest difference this year is the attitude in the kids. We see it this year,'' Hicks said. "I know we will be better. Last year the seniors left something to be desired when it came to attitude.''

His kids believe that.

"We know what people in Albany say about Dougherty,'' said senior cornerback Amaud Ross, a returning starter. "People ask us: 'What's wrong with Dougherty High?' We have to take that negative and turn it into a positive.''

That's the biggest hurdle for many programs.

They face the same kind of negative feedback at Westover, where it may take a while to win the community over and have it warm up to the football program that has had only four winning seasons in its history -- a school with a deep, rich and proud history in basketball.

Octavia Jones took over last year and made memorable strides when his team won the city title by beating Dougherty, Monroe and Albany High. That success was the groundwork for this season.

"I think we have made strides in the community,'' Jones said. "Every outsider I've talked to this year says they have noticed a change in the mentality of the guys. This offseason people are talking about football. And everyone who is involved with this program is excited about this season. People are not just waiting for October and basketball season.''

Hicks said the battle is everywhere.

"The easiest thing is turning the kids around,'' Hicks said. "The toughest thing is the community. Football is easy to sell to the kids. The biggest thing is to make the kids believe in themselves. We have to give our guys confidence. Winning is the cure-all for everything. If you turn around the players, they have to believe you. We want the community to believe in the team. I told our kids everywhere you go and every day, you're selling Dougherty High.''

Lee County grabbed the community last year when the Trojans, who had only five winning seasons in their history until last season, went 7-3 before getting knocked out in the playoffs. Three of their four losses were to state-ranked teams. Lee County had won a total of just seven games over the previous four years.

"People are talking about football in Lee County now,'' senior linebacker and 2011 Albany Herald Dynamite Dozen player Thomas Wright said. "They got on the bandwagon last year and we have to keep it going.''

That's the tough part at Lee, where third-year head coach Dean Fabrizio wants to not only turn the corner but stay there. Lee lost a ton of talent, but begins the season as The Herald's No. 1 ranked team after making a statement with a 38-7 win against Monroe in a scrimmage.

But turning the corner is more than wins and losses in Leesburg.

"One of the biggest things is that our numbers are up in the eighth- and ninth-grade programs,'' Fabrizio said. "We've doubled the kids who are now playing football. That's the key to building a program.''

Jones said his numbers are also up with his younger kids, and he believes once everyone buys into the new mentality at Westover, change will be a forgone conclusion.

"We have the mentality that we expect to win, and that we want to win championships,'' Jones said. "The kids believe that, and once you get the mentality right then you see it in the work ethic. They work harder in the weight room and in the offseason, and then you see it on the field.''

Jones' domino theory makes sense. In short, success breeds success.

It's just making the big move, first to a winning record, and then to a playoff spot and even on to a region title.

No one knows how tough that can be better than Albany High, where the Indians have faced their own demons while trying to turn the corner and gain respect from the community.

"No one ever expects Albany High to win, but we are changing that,'' said coach Felton Williams, whose team starts the season as The Herald's No. 3-ranked team.

Albany High had to overcome a unique situation two years ago when former coach Reggie Mitchell left for Sherwood Christian Academy and took players with him. Mitchell didn't just leave the cupboard bare, he ripped off the doors, took the plumbing in the kitchen and anything else he could grab.

As a result, Williams was forced to start freshmen and sophomores because his senior stars were all at Sherwood. But now -- two years later -- those same freshmen and sophomores are juniors and seniors. They took a big step last year when they fielded the most competitive Albany High team in years. Their 2-8 record didn't show how much progress the team had made.

Mitchell won only two games in his three years as the head coach at Albany High, but last year's team was much better than the record, and this year's group has confidence in the team and the community.

"I think when we start winning, the community will support us,'' said Roscoe Byrd, a two-way lineman who is a Dynamite Dozen player for the second consecutive year. "And we're going to win this year. Our coaches believe in us, and we believe in each other.''

Part of that is the same philosophy Fabrizio, Hicks and Jones have at their schools -- teaching the kids a new mentality, making them believe in themselves.

Turning the corner is always a bigger mental battle than physical.

Just ask the kids at Deerfield-Windsor and Westwood, where both programs went unbeaten and won GISA state titles a year ago. The biggest challenge is defending a title and turning a corner that comes along once in a blue moon.

"We've got to battle other teams because they will get up to play us this year,'' said Westwood coach Ross Worsham, whose team went 13-0 and won it all in GISA's Class A. "But the biggest battle is within ourselves. We can't get (complacent). We can never settle.''

But complacency is always a factor, especially when teams return a lot of starters -- as Westwood and DWS both do -- from unbeaten state championship teams.

"You can't come into the season thinking it's going to be like last year,'' said DWS defensive lineman Matt Miller, a senior and returning starter. "It's hard to get out of that mindset, because it's there. But you have to motivate yourself to work even harder to defend the title.''

Or as DWS running back and Dynamite Dozen player Quentin Heard said: "We have to protect our title. We have to be closer and work harder to protect it. We don't want anyone to take it away.''

Both Worsham and DWS coach Allen Lowe know they have to find new and different ways to push their defending champs.

"As a coach, you fear complacency,'' Lowe said. "Every year you fear that, and you want your seniors to feel like leaders. You want them to feel the urgency to win. It takes all the guys to win it.''

Both teams are built like that -- an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality.

"You worry about someone getting cocky because we went 13-0 last year,'' said Westwood linebacker Daniel Hays, who leads the Wildcats' defense. "But I don't think we have those kinds of kids on this team, and if anyone did get cocky I think the rest of the team would take care of it. If we didn't, coach Worsham would.''

Worsham believes in his kids. After all, they have already turned a couple of corners to get where they are today.

"Three years ago when we started the season we hoped to win the game,'' he said. "Now we have the attitude when we step onto the field that we expect to win the game.''

That's the corner every team wants to turn -- the one that defines the program, year-in and year out.

"It doesn't happen (winning a title or winning in general) because you got a year older,'' Lowe said. "You've got to work. You've got to prepare.''