As the clock struck triple-zeros on Stockbridge High’s 2016 football season last November, head coach Kevin Whitley was already looking ahead to the 2017 season.
The Tigers had just fallen to Rome High, the eventual Class AAAAA state champions, by a score of 24-21. Stockbridge looked poised to pull off the comeback win, but a fumble on a punt return with less than two minutes remaining allowed Rome to run out the clock and end the Tigers’ season in the Final Four.
But Whitley has never been one for groveling in defeat. In his first season with the program in 2009, Stockbridge went 2-8, the next year, 6-5. Since then, the Tigers have gone 68-12 while appearing in the state playoffs in each of those seasons.
So last November’s heartbreaking loss to Rome was no different to Whitley. As he’s done since becoming the head coach, it was full steam ahead.
“As soon as the game was over, Monday you’re back at it,” Whitley said. “I don’t think you’ll ever forget it. If you forget it, you can’t use it as motivation. We’re trying to use it as fuel. We didn’t want it to end like that so we just have to keep getting better.”
It’s one thing for Whitley to believe in moving on from losses quickly, but another thing entirely for players to do the same. Yet, at Stockbridge, accepting defeat and using it as motivation is demanded by Whitley and the rest of his coaching staff.
“If you don’t win it all, there is only one team happy at the end of the year,” Whitley said. “They’ve been dealing with this their whole life. They’ve been playing sports, most of them have. When it gets that time, either you finish it or you don’t. If you don’t finish it you got to get past it and move on. That’s kind of what we’ve done.”
Stockbridge star wide receiver and Florida State commit Marquez Ezzard epitomizes his head coach’s attitude. It was Ezzard who fumbled the punt return against Rome — after catching nine passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns earlier in the game. It would have been easy for Ezzard to rue his miscue for weeks and months to come.
But that’s not the Stockbridge way.
“I got over that game the moment it happened,” Ezzard said. “I’m one of those types of people that doesn’t get mad too much. If we lost, we just lost. We’ve been working hard each and every day as a team. Coach has been pushing real hard.”
Last year’s loss to Rome in the Final Four has just been added to several close calls in Whitley’s career at Stockbridge. Whitley uses all of those painful memories, particularly the 2-8 season in year one, as fuel to improve, and because of that, Stockbridge has emerged as one of the premier programs in the state.
“Everybody else, all they know is winning. They don’t remember when it was bad,” Whitley said. “I was called crazy to come to Stockbridge initially. I’m just not going to forget it. I remember the 2-8 more than anything else. I know that I don’t want to end that way for me, so we just keep working.”
As a premier program, Stockbridge has had to adjust to replacing key pieces every season. This year will be no different as Jalen Holston, Kenderick Duncan, Kelton Dawson and several other players have moved on to play in college.
But the Tigers should remain as potent as ever with Ezzard, Ohio State commit Brenton Cox, Wake Forest commit Nasir Greer, Appalachian State commit Mike Price, Georgia Southern commit Abu Bangura and a handful of All-County and All-Region performers returning in 2017.
“We lose a good group every year, this year we lose 25 seniors or so,” Whitley said. “For us, we put a lot of emphasis on our JV and ninth grade teams. It’s just their turn to play under the lights. We talk about that — ‘it’s your turn, who’s next?’ These guys that are here today, they’ve been here four years. This is their fourth year. All our guys get used to winning, they come up the right way and so it’s just about who is next.”
The Tigers will hope to break through the glass ceiling this season, to reach the state championship game and hoist the trophy. In the short term, Whitley is proud to be at the forefront of a football revolution in Henry County, where notable programs are popping up at every turn.
“This is our ninth year. I think every year Henry County has gotten better at how it treats athletics,” he said. “We’re just getting better, this is part of the process. I try to make everything better than what it was before I got here. Ten years, 20 years down the road, Henry County will be a real football powerhouse and hopefully we’ll look back and say these guys right here are the ones who are responsible for it being where it is.”