It has been a week filled with smiles at Hillgrove High School and with good reason. When the final score of the final game of the regular season reads" Hillgrove 14 McEachern 7 " it can represent so many things. The two schools , located in Powder Springs, are supported by communities that are very close, so braging rights for 365 days are important. As for the team, it was a chance to reach a preseason goal of reclaiming the Region title that McEachern had held for the past two seasons.
"A number of goals were wrapped up in that game," says Hillgrove Head Coach Phillip Ironside." Anytime you win the region it's a big deal.Hosting the playoffs, that's a big deal. That group of seniors had never beaten McEachern, all the way from youth football through middle school, their sophomore and junior years of high school.So, it was big for them"
It was just as big for Ironside and the coaching staff at Hillgrove after a season of change for the Hawks program. Ironically, the seeds for change were planted at playoff time last year. " It has been really good for us, " says Ironside. "We were on our way to Lowndes when the conversation of changing our locker room and our coaching staff came about."
In what sounds like a more holistic approach to coaching, Ironside and his staff decided to become more purposeful in what they were doing. During the off season the coaches , as a group, worked from a book on charateristics and leadership for student athletes and read a chapter each week. Meanwhile 14 players were selected to take part in a leadership program. " We just tried to change the climate of what we were doing and we feel the kids responded ," says Ironside. "We reminded them that doing these things was not a magic bullet to win ball games, but it would make them better young men and make us better coaches."
Ironside took things a step further ,personally, going to Brazil in January and again in June to teach American Football as part of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes mission trip." I Had never been on a mission trip like that," remembers Ironside. "I enjoyed doing for somebody else, and we keep in touch."
Ironside has been the head coach at Hillgrove since the school opened 12 years ago. The Hawks (5-6) overall record from last season marked the first losing season in school history. 2017 looked to be much better.Hillgrove returned a more experienced team and a talent laden offense that had many feeling that the Hawks would be the class of region 3-AAAAAAA. In the season opened Hillgrove got off to a 17-7 first quarter lead over Buford , then the Wolves reeled off 41 unanswered points on the way the 48-17 win over Hillgrove. "Getting beat by Buford, what's the shame in that ??, " asked Ironside. They play for a state title almost every year. They are loaded. They are just a different cat !!." Next came a 33-9 loss at North Gwinnett. Off to an (0-2) start,early season disappointment began to give way to doubt.
"We had our share of adversity," remembers Ironside. " We had a fight in the locker room, and 12 of the 14 kids on the team leadership coucil got into trouble in some form or fashion. We just kept telling the kids to stay the course. What I began to see was great leadership, a commitment to excellence and a willingness to be coached." The season turned, with the Hawks winning the next 5 games in a row.
Marietta Daily Journal Sports Editor John Bednarowski shared his observation on the season at Hillgrove. "After starting 0-2, Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said they had been "outphysicaled" and had to get back to playing their own brand of physical football. That absolutely showed during region play, and the defense is playing at its peak heading to the playoffs."
It seems that in a calendar year the Hillgrove football team and coaches have been challenged in every way. Which should them even more confident as the post season arrives. On this Football Friday in Georgia, the Hawks will host Roswell in the first round of the state playoffs. The coach is warning his team to not hung up on the Hornets (3-7) record. "They played a tougher schedule than we did, says Ironside. " We have to get our kids back down to earth. Everybody has been patting them on backs after beating McEachern. Time to let that go and focus on the next thing."