Numbers and morale are up for the New Hope High School football program.
After a controversial coaching change following the 2013 season, Kris Pickle accepted the challenge of restoring order in Trojan Country.
With New Hope on an unprecedented run of baseball success and basketball on the up tick, it would be natural for New Hope football to fade to the background.
Instead, Pickle won over the doubters. Players who once skipped part of a school day to protest the removal of their former coach were suddenly grinding harder than ever.
New Hope won 10 games in 2014, advanced to the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A playoffs, and bagged a signature win against traditional power West Point.
In a short period of time the question has gone from “Does New Hope have enough players to field a competitive team?” to “How good can New Hope football become?”
But Pickle is cautiously approaching his second season in Lowndes County.
“We lost 26 seniors from last season’s team, so really we are starting over,” Pickle said. “We only have seven or eight players who really got a serious amount of playing time last year.”
Just as quickly as Pickle tempers the anticipation for the 2015 season, he builds the expectations back up.
“We have a lot of talented kids coming back,” Pickle said, “and we have a whole new group of guys, who can really play. We are going to be a young team, but we have guys who can really play.”
Prior to his initial season, Pickle sold his reputation as a hard-nosed disciplinarian with a track record of success to his new players. Now he is selling so much more.
“The coaching staff has been together for a year,” Pickle said. “Familiarity goes a long way in this business. We have a system in place, so now we are spending more time on coaching technique. Kids want to play for a winner. Your sale is a lot easier when you have the success we had last year. It makes it easier to start the talk of playing football.”
The New Hope football field has undergone some renovations, which includes the installation of a new scoreboard. A new field house is being completed. Pickle said the facility will be “one of the best — if not the best — in North Mississippi.” New uniforms also are on order, including a new white design for the jerseys.
“Football is hard,” Pickle said. “It’s tough. It takes a special kind of kid to play. You have to give them nice things. You have to give them things they want to a part of. The field house is a huge step for our program. The field house is your football home, so you want something nice.
“Kids are easily swayed by nice things. You want them to know they will be taken care of and, at the same time, we are going to win some football games.”
Pickle knew one of his first tasks was getting the numbers up. The Trojans began fall practice Monday with 70 players on the varsity roster and 42 players on the junior high roster.
Students who were uncertain about playing football are coming out and giving it a try. Pickle has welcomed several basketball players to the field, including senior Carlos Brooks, who is expected to start at wide receiver. Junior Terryonte Thomas also is off to a good start at receiver.
“Those are guys who played in football in the past and got away from it,” Pickle said. “They have come back. That shows you what is going on within our program. Depth is key when you are playing Class 5A competition. Our numbers are outstanding and continue to grow.”
Also growing is the New Hope football bond. Pickle takes pride in his team’s chemistry off the field.
“At the end of summer workouts, a lot of players don’t have anything to show for it other than 30 days of really hard work,” Pickle said. “We take our entire team to a local water park. We grill hamburgers and the guys get to swim and stuff.”
Players missing one or fewer workouts during the summer get a free trip to Six Flags in Atlanta, Georgia. Pickle was pleased to take 25 players on this year’s trip.
“We want the players to experience things,” Pickle said. “Each year we go the players get that same look my daughter got the first time she went to Disney World. They really can’t believe what all is there.
“It makes you feel good as a coach. The time away from the field is incredible for camaraderie, too. Winning games is important. Impacting young people is even more important. We try our best to do both.”
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. You can email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.