It starts with the players.
Any coach will tell you that.
If you’re going to build a winning football team, if you’re going to establish a successful program, you have to have the talent to make it happen.
It goes a lot deeper than that, though.
You need a group of coaches, led by the head coach, who know how to get the most out of the players, and those players have to buy in to what the coaches are trying to teach them.
Everyone associated with the program has to be willing to put in the work to make it happen, to dedicate themselves to making sure Friday nights are successful.
It also helps to have a school, and a community, that is supportive of that program, that backs the coaches and the players.
That’s a recipe for success, and it’s one the Callaway Cavaliers are following closely at the moment.
Callaway has the talent, it has the coaches, everyone is invested 100 percent in putting a winning product on the field, and there’s no question the support is there from the school, and the Callaway community.
It is not an accident that, with the start of the state playoffs just a few days away, the Cavaliers have wrapped up a second consecutive 9-1 regular season, as well as a second straight Region 4-AAA title.
If the Cavaliers beat Henry County on Friday, they’ll reach double digits in wins for the fourth time in six years, and they will have won at least one state-playoff game in five of the past six seasons.
The Cavaliers have won at least seven games in seven straight seasons, they’re in the state playoffs for the eighth straight year, and they’ve won four region championships in the past six years.
That’s not too shabby.
At Callaway, it starts with head coach Pete Wiggins, who took over the Callaway program in 2005 after serving as an assistant under Claude Giddens.
Since Day 1, Matt Napier has been his offensive coordinator, and Dusty Hubbard the defensive coordinator.
The Cavaliers have always had an exceptional coaching staff, and this year is no exception.
Callaway also has an outstanding junior-varsity program - the team went 7-0 this season - and the middle-school program does a great job of preparing the players for high-school football.
It all works together to create a program that keeps churning out the wins, even as the names on the roster change.
As Wiggins said after a win a few weeks ago, “when they get on the field, they believe they’re going to win.”
That comes with preparation, with knowing you’ve done everything possible to get ready for that week’s game.
The Cavaliers went 9-12 in Wiggins’ first two seasons, but they went 8-3 in 2007, and the ball was rolling.
The Cavaliers went 10-2 and won the first of two straight region titles in 2008, and they followed that up with a 10-3 season in 2009, and they made it to the state quarterfinals.
The Cavaliers went 8-4 and won another playoff game in 2010, and after a 7-4 season in 2011, the Cavaliers are 19-3 the past two seasons.
Overall, Wiggins has a career record of 71-31, good for a winning percentage of right at .700.
Wiggins is the captain of the ship, and it’s under his leadership that this program has grown, has achieved so much.
Of course Wiggins would be the first one to deflect credit to those around him.
Wiggins always talks about the importance of his coaches, of the support staff that includes Tray Tucker, who handles the logistics, of the parents who are so critical to the program’s success, and mostly to the players, who give so much of themselves.
And the coaches ask a lot of the players, not just during the season.
Like most programs, Callaway has a rigorous off-season conditioning program, and the summer is a busy time with conditioning and camps.
It all comes together on game night when, more often than not, Callaway is the more-prepared team.
“We always talk about preparation, and preparing yourself for when we do get to the game,” Wiggins said. “There’s so much work that goes into getting to a game on Friday nights.”
You don’t remain successful by looking back, of course.
The Cavaliers, win or lose, put a game in the rearview mirror and move on to the next challenge.
And when a season is done, the coaches and players ask themselves how they can make the following season even better.
For the moment, Callaway’s focus is on making a deep playoff run.
After another stellar regular season,the Cavaliers are one of 32 Class AAA teams still standing.
It’ll be a tough road in the playoffs.
First up is a Henry County team that, while just 3-7, is tested after making its way through a strong region that includes perennial title contenders Peach County and Carver.
If the Cavaliers get past that game, they would either play an always tough Thomson team, or a Pierce County squad that is 9-1.
If the Cavaliers make it to the quarterfinals, their likely opponent would be an unbeaten Cartersville team, and the powerful Buford Wolves would possibly be waiting in the semifinals.
And if the Cavaliers could somehow run that gauntlet and reach the championship game, unbeaten Washington County just might be waiting.
But hey, it’s not supposed to be easy this time of year, and there’s no question the Cavaliers have what it takes to hang around for awhile.
They have the players everybody knows, the ones who’ll be playing on Saturdays down the road like quarterback Tez Parks, wide receiver Terry Godwin and linebacker KeShun Freeman, but this is a deep lineup with skill at every position.
These are also mostly experienced players who have been there before, and who remember the pain of losing to Washington County 28-0 in the second round of the playoffs a year ago.
It’s playoff time, and the Cavaliers are focused, hungry and ready to add another chapter or two to an already successful story.
A tip of the hat also goes to the Troup Tigers, who have made such huge strides this season after going 3-7 in 2012.
The Tigers have won four in a row, and they are feeling extremely confident as they head into their playoff opener, and rightfully so.
The Tigers were 2-4 at one point, but look at the teams they’d lost to.
Troup had early losses to Callaway and Newnan, and they later lost back-to-back games to Sandy Creek and Carrollton.
Those four teams have a combined record of 33-6-1, they’re all in the state playoffs, and three of them are at home for the first round.
Tested by that rugged schedule, Troup marched past its final four opponents to earn the number three seed in Region 5-AAAA.
Kudos to head coach Lynn Kendall and his staff, who have done such an outstanding job of figuring out what these players do well, and catering the system to fit those traits.
This is a group of players who want to line up and play smash-mouth football, and that’s exactly what the Tigers do on offense and defense.
And they do it well.
The Tigers have been a dominant second-half team for much of the season, and that’s a credit to their style of play, as well as the fitness level of the players.
Like the Cavaliers, the Tigers have a tough playoff draw, but they’re a team that seems to be built for this time of year.
If the Tigers can hang on to the ball, there probably aren’t many teams out there they can’t compete with.
While Callaway and Troup are prepping for the playoffs, LaGrange is done for the season.
The Grangers finished fifth in Region 5-AAAA, leaving them outside of the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
The Grangers looked like they might be building momentum with wins over Shaw and Columbus to open region play, but their season was derailed with a loss to Alexander, and their playoff hopes were smashed with a loss to rival Troup.
The key for LaGrange’s program at the moment, obviously, is to find the right person to lead it.
Donnie Branch has announced that he won’t return for a fourth season as head coach, so the main priority at the moment is to find his replacement.
The new head coach can then take a look at things and figure out how to get the program back to its previous lofty heights.
There are plenty of outstanding candidates, and principal Penny Johnson and athletic director Jamie Schmitt will find the right person.
On a personal note, I wish the best for Branch, who is an outstanding coach, and a terrific person as well.
When I came to LaGrange in 2002, Branch made me feel right at home, and he’s always been warm and welcoming whenever we’ve talked.
I have always enjoyed our conversations, and I’ve always appreciated how open and forthright he is.
He said he wants to remain on the football staff, and I hope he does.