HEPHZIBAH, Ga. -- They're often the brunt of jokes, and opposing football teams usually look past them, banking on an automatic victory.
It seems nobody ever respects the Hephzibah Rebels. And why should they? Over the past 13 seasons, Hephzibah's record is a combined 24-106. The Rebels have played .500 football only twice, going 5-5 in both 1991 and 1992.
Four coaches have come and gone, but there's some new-found confidence in the players under first-year coach Bill Navas, a level of confidence that hasn't been seen in a Hephzibah team this decade. Players insist there's going to be a change in attitude.Navas, a 31-year old fire-and-brimstone-type coach, spent last season as an assistant coach at Butler after serving six years as an assistant coach at South Aiken.
He is a native of Pittsburgh and served as a graduate assistant coach under Pittsburgh coach Paul Hackett in 1991.
Navas has the Rebels off to a 2-0 start for the second straight season, beating Laney two weeks ago and hammering Harlem on Friday. However, Hephzibah started out the same way last season with two straight wins before eight consecutive losses sent the Rebels' season spiraling downward. Tonight they travel to meet Westside Macon, a team in just its third season with a state playoff trip to its credit.
At the end of the season, the Richmond County Board of Education fired coach Ivory Hugee apparently for not producing enough wins, outraging several players who didn't know where to turn. However, Navas was hired a few weeks later and the players began to adjust.
"It was hard when coach Hugee was fired," said senior tight end Marcus Thomas. "But coach Navas was brought in and he kind of eased his way in here, making the transition very easy."
Navas began the long road with afternoon weight and conditioning sessions while drilling in each player's head that hard work pays off. He instilled in each player that if they continued to work hard, they eventually could turn around the school's misfortunes.
"The biggest thing (about this year) is work ethic," said senior strong safety Brandon Lynch. "Over the summer, all coach (Navas) had us doing was getting up and lifting weights and conditioning. Some guys' 40-yard dash times went from like 4.7 to 4.6."
Junior Gavin Willingham agreed.
"We come out here every day and our work habits have definitely improved," Willingham said. "We just get after it."
Navas won't take any credit for the team's early success. He says a lot of older players on the team are fed up with the six consecutive losing seasons and they are the ones who want to see things change.
"I don't think I've done anything in particular," said Navas, who gave the Rebels a new look, transforming the old black helmets into Michigan look-a-likes with red stripes. "We just have some football players who want to be successful and they'll do anything to be successful. And they've got a lot of other guys believing as well."
Lynch said be believes the Rebels have been losing football games for so long that the community has gotten the perception that it's all right to lose.
"A lot of people support us," he said. "However they feel like if we give a good effort and still lose the game that it's OK to lose. I don't want us to have that kind of attitude anymore."