Over the past two seasons, the Columbus High School football team has posted a record of 6-15. Two of those wins have come against New Hope, which went 6-28 over the past three.
So neither one can be called a “football school,” but each has a coach working to change that, making for an intriguing matchup Friday night in New Hope.
New Hope has lost four consecutive games in the series, last winning in 2014, when the Trojans went 10-3 and won a playoff game during Kris Pickle’s first year as coach. The only winning season since was 6-5 in 2016, and winning six games in the past three years necessitated more than a coaching change.
“We had to fix some things,” first-year coach Seth Stillman said. “There were things we were doing wrong, and we had some entitlement issues with our players, the kind who thought it was cool to be a New Hope football player and it wasn’t very hard to be a New Hope football player.
“We tried to take the mindset that we’re going to make it hard to be a New Hope football player, It’s got to mean something to you, and you’re going to have to make sacrifices or you’re not going to be able to play for us.”
Stillman brings credibility to the sidelines; he was a star defensive end on a Trojans team that went 11-2 during his senior season in 2009, losing twice to West Point, once in the Class 5A semifinals. The three-year defensive coordinator was a popular choice to take over the program when former coach Wade Tackett resigned.
Three years removed from setting a school record by allowing 442 points, the Trojans have pitched consecutive shutouts against Shannon (34-0) and Itawamba Agricultural (24-0). New Hope allowed just 106 yards of offense and forced three turnovers last week against the Indians, a team that handed them a 27-19 loss last season..
“It’s always nice to have that early success because it’s just even faster buy-in,” Stillman said. “Our kids will buy in; at some point they’ll start believing, but that early success really helps.”
One person not surprised by Stillman’s early success is Columbus coach Joshua Pulphus.
“I want to give credit to coach Stillman,” Pulphus said. “I knew that he was going to do a great job. People say it’s a surprising start, but we know they’re a good team, well coached, and pride is going to be big over there.”
Restoring pride is part of what Pulphus is trying to do as well. The third-year coach took over after the Falcons went 0-11 in 2018, surrendering a school-record 456 points. They surprised many by winning four games during his first season but slipped back to 2-8 a year ago, although five of the losses were by less than a touchdown.
This season, the Falcons are 1-3, defeating Southaven and losing to Starkville, Louisville and Tupelo. Those three schools are 11-1, with Starkville’s win over Louisville accounting for the only loss.
“We knew the slate was going to be tough, that we would have to go through our growing pains, but we’ve been weathering the storm well enough,” Pulphus said. “We’re where we need to be. Our goal wasn’t to go 4-0 or whatever; we just wanted to get better so when division time comes we’d know what we have.”
That time has arrived, as Friday’s game marks the Class 5A-1 opener for both teams. And one thing Pulphus has is confidence in his quarterback, Omari Williams.
“This is his first year playing as quarterback, and I’m so proud of him,” Pulphus said. “. HE’s going through adversity, but he’s constantly coming in and working hard and trying to get better. His stats don’t show it, but he’s been doing a great job for us, and he’s a great team leader as well.”
It doesn’t figure to get any easier against a defense that has yet to allow a point.
“We’ve got a really experienced secondary as a whole, but we have a senior, J’Lynn Topps, who plays corner and who’s grading out in the high 90s every week,” Stillman said. “He leads us on the back end. Javeon Henry’s the other corner. He’s scored two touchdowns already this year, a scoop-and-score and a pick-six, and two other interceptions. We’re turning the ball over a ton.”
That kind of defensive pressure could pose problems for the Falcons, especially considering what Pulphus said is their biggest problem.
“Youth, immaturity with regard to playing experience,” he said. “A lot of guys we’ve got out here, it’s their first year playing.”
Pulphus wants a team that runs the ball and plays solid defense, and he said defense has been a strength. But after facing three of the state’s best teams already, the Falcons won’t get much of a break facing New Hope senior quarterback Ty Crowell.
“I’ll be honest, he’s the best player on the field most Friday nights regardless of the team we play,” Stillman said. “When you’ve got a guy who’s really special and can move like him, it sure does make things nice when things break down.”
And that skill feeds into the team’s defensive success.
“We’re not turning the ball over, we’re getting first downs every drive, no three-and-outs, things like that,” Stillman said. “When you only have to play 45 snaps of defense on Friday, odds are you’re going to be in really good shape.
“It gets overlooked all the time. When you play 70 snaps on defense and give up 30 points, it looks like the defense is horrendous, but when your offense is turning the ball over every other series and you’re going three and out in the others, it puts a lot of strain on you. … coach (Cameron) Olsen’s been able to get our offense flipped, and we’re having some success.”
And opposing teams are noticing. It will take a big effort for the Falcons to improve on their 15-5 all-time record against the Trojans.
“They’re fast and physical, and their quarterback does a great job,” Pulphus said. “I tell you, we’re going to have our hands full on Friday.”