After his team suffered a 38-point loss to Heritage two weeks ago, Appomattox coach Doug Smith offered an unvarnished view of his football program.
“We’re not what we once were,” he said.
The Raiders regularly crushed the opposition while bulldozing their way to three straight state titles from 2015 through 2017. They racked up 10 wins last season. But they are now an uncharacteristic 1-2 after playing Heritage, a game in which they allowed more points — 52 — than they had in any game since 2007.
Smith, of course, is right. Appomattox is a shell of its former self.
But this is a Raiders team desperately trying to find its way.
It’s coming to grips with what it once was.
It’s trying to find the fire that once produced a sterling 32-game winning streak and a stunning 54-3 record from 2015 through 2018.
And, at the same time, Appomattox is trying to forge its own identity.
So Smith and his squad have settled on a motto this season: Joy.
“We knew going into this year that we were gonna struggle,” the coach, in his eighth year here, said during a practice this week. “So we said let’s have joy through the struggle. Let’s keep our heads up. Let’s realize [success] is coming, and you’ve just got to keep after it until you find it.”
The adage, Smith said, will be painted on the field at Bragg Stadium soon, interlocked with “PO1,” short for the “Power of One” saying that spread through this community during the 2015 run, which produced the school’s first state football championship.
Appomattox returns to the gridiron tonight for the first time since the Sept. 13 loss. It hosts Staunton River at 7 p.m. before heading into play in the Dogwood District next week.
Smith and his staff spent their bye week focusing on the basics: blocking, tackling, core assignments. They did very little team work, choosing instead to drill in individual responsibilities. They also took advantage of the off week to get healthy; several players were out in the squad’s first three games.
Becoming a stronger unit is a slow process these days, because while Appomattox still boasts some of the better players in the area, it also features plenty of youth and inexperience to go along with a smaller roster, the result of declining participation.
Some players are new to the game. Others didn’t have much training before joining the varsity ranks.
For instance, senior basketball standout Tyler Gilliam, a starting wide receiver, is in his first season of varsity football. Running back Cristian Ferguson, who barreled for nearly 1,500 rushing yards last season, was once a lineman in his youth football days. Running back Keyshawn Baker has made considerable gains since his freshman year, when Smith said “he looked like he’d never had a ball thrown to him.” Now, Baker is one of Appomattox’s featured runners in the split-back veer.
“I think we’ve got players who have never known their identity in this sport,” Smith continued. “Growing up, I don’t think this group has ever been on a team that had an identity. There’re bits and pieces of good potential, good athleticism, and great athleticism, to be honest with you. It’s just believing in yourself and willing yourself upon your opponent and not assuming that because [success] hasn’t happened it can’t happen now.”
ACHS has shown flashes of brilliance already. It has completed long, methodical drives for touchdowns and shown fans it’s still capable of those quick, out-of-the-blue offensive strikes and tough defensive stands that defined recent teams here.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that want it,” sophomore quarterback Tre Lawing said. “We’ve just got to come together as one and we’ll be OK.”
Senior receiver and outside linebacker Tevin Hurt, who played on the 2017 state championship squad, has noticed a difference between that squad and this one. It’s not too late, he noted, for his teammates to find the determination that Appomattox possessed two seasons ago.
“The ’17 team came out and wanted it; like, we needed it,” Hurt said. “We worked at it every day.”
So this team, while trying to learn schemes quickly, also is trying to find joy in the struggle.
“We want that same fire with our own identity,” Ferguson said. “[The new motto] means a lot to me, because everybody has their personal struggles. And, as you can see, we’re not starting off like we have in the past. So that shows we have to keep being positive and keep on going every day.”
Ferguson, Lawing and Hurt are all in agreement the sky is the limit for this team. They’re confident they’ll find their way, buckle down and make a playoff run.
“Stay positive,” Lawing said. “We’re gonna face adversity, but we still have to have joy.”
And joy is sometimes much different than happiness, Smith pointed out. Players don’t have to be happy with a loss. But Smith does want them to enjoy the process.
The coach’s instruction always has gone beyond the gridiron. He wants players to see football as a metaphor for life. Sometimes things don’t go your way. Sometimes you struggle. And sometimes, the process of becoming a better team or individual is long and difficult.
“It’s like digging for something that you know is there,” Smith said. “You’ve just got to keep digging for it through a lot of sore and bloody days. But you’ve got to have joy.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.