The roots of a culture change are starting to take hold in Hephzibah’s soil.
A renewed excitement is in the air around the Rebels football program. The word “finally” is a common one used among players who are focused on hard work and other positive characteristics that help a program succeed.
“Inch at a time, because you can’t just expect to come out here and win,” junior defensive end Elijah Mayes said. “You have to work hard for it. Everybody works hard on this team. We’re finally doing something.”
What they’re doing on the field is starting to draw rave reviews.
Hephzibah lost its core of talent off a 6-5 team that reached the playoffs in 2014. Head coach William Harrell took over the next season with the challenge of building the program back, and 2015 led to a 3-7 mark.
The 2016 season was a low point with underclassmen dotting the field and taking their lumps. The result was an 0-10 record, but Harrell continued to work toward changing things within the program.
“We’ve learned how to deal with adversity after last year,” senior defensive back Kareem Butler said. “0-10 was something we didn’t want to see anymore. Everybody got the same goal. We all bought in. We learned a lot last year.”
This past summer was a tough one for Hephzibah with a lot of sweat, work and camps. The Rebels went to more camps for the purpose of team building and seeing better opposition in an effort to prepare themselves by the beginning of the season.
Several players attributed the camps and harder work in the weight room for being more prepared by the time August rolled around.
This season’s start wasn’t what they expected, however, by getting off to an 0-2 mark with losses to Jenkins County and Glenn Hills. After the home loss to the Spartans, the team held a meeting as a reminder of what it was trying to accomplish.
“That week we really buckled down, and we had a meeting and everybody got together,” senior quarterback Max Lockwood said. “We talked about the fact that we have to come together, because this is it for us, the senior class, and we were really going to do something special this year. It started clicking from there.”
The result of the extra work, increased focus and that team meeting was a streak of success not seen in Hephzibah since the 2014 season.
The Rebels pounced on Westside, 39-7, for their first win in 15 games, then took care of Butler, 21-12. After routing Hancock Central, they opened region play with a dominating 41-6 victory over Cross Creek as a statement win. The victory put Hephzibah squarely in the conversation for a playoff berth from Region 3-AAAA, and the team surpassed its win total from the past two seasons combined.
Harrell doesn’t care for interviews because he wants his players to receive the praise, but those players repeatedly mentioned the coach’s name when listing reasons for the program’s turnaround.
The Rebels more often turn away from distractions now, such as social media and hype within the school. They’ve also garnered praise from outside sources for being respectful and displaying good sportsmanship on the field.
“Some of the things he’s instilled in the program, it’s just big time for us,” junior offensive lineman Corby McIntire said. “Staying true to who we are and not letting hype get to us and social media and stuff. We don’t play into all that anymore. We pretty much stay true to ourselves and work hard regardless of any score in any game.”
The upperclassmen who played through the tough times the past couple years have witnessed a culture change. A renewed off-the-field focus is starting to produce positive on-field results not seen in several seasons.
Beyond wins and losses, the players are growing as people, and there’s a new sense of pride coming from Hephzibah.
“The guys are a lot more respectful to coaches, they love being out here, they love what we do now, and we’re really starting to believe we can do things around here,” Lockwood said.
Reach David Lee at (706) 823-3216 or email@example.com.