By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal
NEW ALBANY – Despite losing in the first round of the playoffs, Houston High’s turnaround can be labeled a dramatic one.
“You gotta understand where these guys came from,” said Donny Rogers, who just wrapped up his first season as Houston’s head football coach. “The second game of the season we went up 7-0. As soon as we kicked off, on the second play they throw a 70-yard bomb and we quit.
“We quit right there – 7-7. We are then down 27-7 at halftime.”
Entering that Week 2 game against Calhoun City, it had been five years since the Hilltoppers won more than two games in a season. Heck, they had never won a playoff game.
So, when Calhoun City started having success in that early-season game, you can only imagine that the “Oh no, here we go again” feeling crept in among the Hilltoppers.
But, after losing 34-21 to the Wildcats, they proved to be a difficult opponent for the remainder of the teams on their schedule. Although they ended the year with five more losses, four of those defeats were by eight points or less.
They held their own in MHSAA Division 4-4A games against powerhouses Louisville and Noxubee County – two top 15 teams in Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s statewide poll. Against seventh-ranked Louis-ville, the Hilltoppers missed two field goals by a slim margin and ended up losing 26-23.
“They have learned how to fight their butts off, and they don’t give up,” said Rogers, who had been a veteran coach in Alabama before coming over to Mississippi. “You know, when you’re rebuilding like we are, that’s the first thing you gotta teach them.
“You gotta teach them how to fight and scratch and to want it.”
Before walking off New Albany’s Kitchens Field on Friday night, on the short end of a 21-17 first-round playoff contest against the fifth-ranked Bulldogs, Rogers said he couldn’t be prouder of his team even if it had won.
Without one of their best offensive linemen – left guard Taylor Stevens had to have an appendectomy on Friday – the Hilltoppers rushed for 221 yards against New Albany and held a 17-14 lead in the final four minutes.
“We had to plug in Cory Anderson and he did a good job for us,” Rogers said. “That kind of limited us with some stuff pulling-wise.”
With a lot of young players coming back, the future looks bright for Rogers and the Hilltoppers, who ended 2011 with a 6-6 mark.
“Everybody that I talked to, trying to get a read on them, said they play football from start to finish and they will not lay down,” Bulldogs coach Ron Price said about Friday’s opening-round opponent. “And we experienced that tonight. … They came here tonight and gave us everything that they wanted, and we’re very fortunate to be walking out winners tonight.”