As the C.A. Johnson High football team began practice indoors due to the inclement weather on Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen students peered into the Green Hornets' gymnasium hoping to get a peek at their football team.
When your team has a 6-1 record, ensuring the school's first winning season in over two decades, everybody wants to take a look.
The Green Hornets are in their third season under coach Jerry Jackson and were 2-18 under Jackson the past two seasons. The last C.A. Johnson team to finish above .500 was the 1986 squad that went 7-4. The team hasn't made it to the state playoffs in 14 years.
But this season has been a special one for the Green Hornets, both on and off the field.
"To be honest with you, coach Jackson puts his whole life into this football team," senior lineman Benjamin Jones said. "After practice he makes sure that everyone gets home OK, and he even goes out of his way to drive players home.
"He does everything he can to keep everyone focused in the classroom, on the football field, or just making sure we're heading down the right path in life."
Tonight, Jackson leads C.A. Johnson into perhaps it's biggest game in decades as they travel to take on undefeated and No. 3-ranked Williston-Elko.
Not only would a win enhance the Green Hornets' chances of making the state playoffs, it would give them sole possession of first place in Region 4-A. The last time C.A. Johnson had an opportunity to claim first place in the region this late in the season was in Week 8 in 1985.
After a coaching stint at Calhoun County High, Jackson came to C.A. Johnson in 2003 oblivious to the once illustrious heritage of the school.
One of the first things Jackson did to acquaint himself with the tradition and history of C.A. Johnson was to speak with alumni, an experience that opened his eyes to the high regard in which the school is held.
That school pride that seemed to waver over the years is one of the assets Jackson and his staff are using as a tool for success this season.
"That's one of the things we decided we wanted to build back up, so this season we've established the slogan 'The Pride Is Back,' " he said.
"That's something that we've tried to preach to our players," Jackson said. "We tell them 'you're not only playing for yourself, you're playing for those who came before you at this school, the school administration, the coaching staff and your family'. Our players have finally started to buy into that, which makes it that much harder to give up."
C.A. Johnson principal Kathie Greer said alumni are taking notice.
Greer said in her previous two years at C.A. Johnson, no more than a dozen fans would show up at away football games and only a quarter of the stands at the Green Hornets' home field, Bolden Stadium, would be filled.
"However, this season is completely different," Greer said. "At our last away game, we had the most people that I could've ever imagined show up to cheer on the team."
Jackson also has put an emphasis on academics.
"We tell our players all the time, 'you're a student athlete,' " Jackson said. "You've got to have reasonably good grades in order to get a good job because those grades will follow you wherever you go."
Less than a month into the season, several players, found out Jackson meant business.
Assistant coach Gerald Hemingway, a C.A Johnson English teacher and the team's academic advisor, discovered that a number of football players weren't performing as well as they should have been. Even though there are only 37 players on the roster, Jackson and his staff suspended 14 for the first quarter against Fox Creek.
"As a coach you always want to win, but you have to know what's best for these kids," Jackson said. "It was almost heart wrenching going out there with 14 players on the team sitting out for a whole quarter, but a message had to be sent."As difficult as it was for Jackson to see those players sit out, he was relieved that his team was able to come away with a victory.
"The ninth graders and other inexperienced guys that we put in really gave it their all," Jackson said. "Our suspended players were as lively and as active as they could be, cheering on those young guys with great passion. I thought to myself, 'Whoa we've really got something special here.' "