Unification is a good thing • Jonathan Branch
A little over a month ago, I took my position as the sports writer here in Madison at the Citizen. One of the first stories I learned of was the merger of the middle school football program with the high school program.
I didn’t understand.
I mean I understood this was newsworthy and, by all accounts, would make a good story (and I hope you think so, too).
What I didn’t understand is what took so long.
I don’t mean months of deliberation and working out the gritty details until the plan was foolproof. I mean what took so long?
This is something schools and programs similar to Morgan County in size and stature did years ago. Those small-town programs had their middle schools running the same plays with the same names and strategies as the varsity program a decade ago.
And the success in those places has been immense.
From my own experience, growing up in South Georgia around programs like Thomas County Central, Lowndes, and Valdosta, I’ve seen how these types of programs work, and boy, do they work well.
I attended Thomasville High School, the only high school in the city school system. In 2005, Thomasville hired Richie Marsh, the defensive coordinator at nearby powerhouse Valdosta, to be the new head coach.
Marsh brought with him a wing-T offense and a weightlifting program that made Valdosta a championship contender in football and weightlifting. He implemented both systems at the middle school and high school level when he arrived in Thomasville. Since racking up back-to-back 5-6 records his first two seasons, Marsh has gone 40-21, won Region 1-AA in 2007, and started each season in the Top 10 poll in AA. He has also sent at least five players to college on scholarships each season since 2007, including starters at Clemson and Georgia Tech.
At Thomasville, middle school coaches roam the sidelines and coaches’ box on Friday night. They sit in during weekly coaching meetings and run the same playbook as the varsity squad. It created a solid support system in the system and among fans and parents. All those components can now happen in the Morgan County Football Program thanks to this unification.
Thomasville and Valdosta aren’t the only schools where high school head coaches oversee the middle school programs, too.
Ed Pilcher, longtime head coach at Thomas County Central, installed his split back veer offense when he arrived at TCC in 1991. Thomas County Middle School also adopted that offense. The results? TCC won the Class AAA state championship in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, and 1997. The Jackets also made back-to-back trips to the Georgia Dome (the AAAA semifinals) in 2002 and 2003 and again in 2007.
Cairo installed a similar system at their middle school. It’s probably no coincidence that the Syrupmakers (yes, that’s their mascot) have advanced to at least the third round of the AAA playoffs each season since 2007, when Carver (Columbus) beat them in the state finals. Cairo returned to the finals in 2008 and beat Flowery Branch to take home the title.
Colquitt County, Buford and Lowndes all incorporate a system similar to the one that has been installed here. That’s pretty solid company. Buford goes so far to incorporate its younger teams in the programs for each varsity game.
Now, I am not saying this unification will instantly make Morgan County’s varsity team a perennial power. Don’t get me wrong. That comes with hard work, skilled athletes and, at times, a little luck.
What it will do is put Morgan County in a better position to succeed, which is crucial after a move up to AAA where programs like Buford and Carver (Columbus) will reside. From a cost-benefit perspective, it appears to help a program more than hurt. At least, that’s what it’s proven at schools similar to Morgan County, which has a smaller talent pool than the private Atlanta-area schools.
This change will allow that smaller talent pool to develop and learn the system quicker. At the beginning of last season, if you had taken a rising ninth grader aside and asked him to run a high school play, he may have had no idea what it looked like. Or if it was a run or a pass. So for a year, he’d spend time learning the playbook and terminology like a second language. Now, under a unified system, he should be fluent by the time he arrives at MCHS.
This will also help establish who the future playmakers will be. High school coaches will now have a hand in deciding who plays where, giving those athletes more time to learn the ins and outs of the position before moving to high school.
For the near future, the change also gives Morgan County a competitive advantage against its new Region 8-AAA opponents like Hart County, Elbert County and Franklin County who have not installed a united system.
The Morgan County Middle School team will also secede from the Piedmont Athletic Conference under the new plan. Instead, Coach Malone would like to schedule games against larger schools that feed larger high school programs with talent. That may sound like less wins at the middle school level, but to be quite honest, winning at that level shouldn’t be the number one priority. Granted, everyone wants to win, but at that level, development is crucial. If the goal for the football program is to compete and win at a state level, then having a middle school team that beats up on other local teams won’t cut it. To be the best, you have to beat the best.
Consider this to be the middle school program growing up. With that, the program needs to establish a high-level of play, and that begins with player selection. These kids will be gaining preparation for the high school level, so it only makes sense to give those closest to high school—eighth graders—the first priority for roster spots and playing time. Seventh graders shouldn’t shy away from trying out though, but sixth graders should probably look to the Recreation Department to help develop and prepare before trying out for the middle school team.
Perhaps the biggest surface-level change will be the incorporation of the Bulldog mascot at the middle school level, leaving the former “Bullpup” title behind. But as I’ve noted, this system is much more than that. It’s a set-up that should have those formerly known as Bullpups talking like Bulldogs, playing like Bulldogs, and winning as Bulldogs soon.
Printed in the June 21, 2012 edition