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Monday, June 18, 2012 - 7:25am

Mariakis, Bell Lead Consistent Ridgeland

Winning has become a tradition at Ridgeland, but that wasn’t always the case at the northwest Georgia school.

In fact when coach Mark Mariakis took over the football program in 2004, the Panthers had won just five games in four years. But Mariakis has transformed the formerly bottom-dwelling program into a consistent winner. Ridgeland has been to the playoffs six consecutive times.

“We hit the ground running,” said Mariakis of the turnaround. “We laid the groundwork in the first two seasons and had a lot of facility renovations.”

“We tried to restore the pride in the program.”

The Panthers upgraded their weightroom and fieldhouse in those first two seasons and success followed. After winning just four games in 2004 and 2005, Ridgeland made the playoffs in Mariakis’ third year and hasn’t missed the postseason since.

“Winning cures a lot of ills,” said Mariakis of his first few seasons at Ridgeland. “Our program became a place people wanted to be a part of.”

With the program’s winning reputation established, Ridgeland has been infused with talented players. A prime example of that is defensive back/wide receiver Vonn Bell, who has been offered scholarships by a who’s who of top college programs. In fact, Mariakis had quite a few visitors to the Panthers’ spring practice.

“It was a three-ring circus,” said Mariakis of spring practice. “There was a college coaching staff at every practice.”

Mariakis said that in addition to visitors, Bell has also used technology to help in his recruitment as Alabama coach Nick Saban and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer have used Skype to sell Bell on their respective programs.

But the rising senior has not rested on his laurels with the nation’s top coaches coming after him. In fact, Bell has worked even harder on his craft.

“He really committed himself to being a great player,” said Mariakis. “He was a good athlete playing football, but he’s become a great player.”

While Mariakis can rely on Bell to stand out individually, the rest of the team will determine the fate of this year’s edition of Panthers. Mariakis, a UT-Chattanooga grad, is pleased with the team’s work thus far in 2012.

“It’s one of the best offseasons we’ve had,” said Mariakis. “We’ve had a great offseason in the weight room and a great beginning to summer workouts.”

Ridgeland has become a perennial playoff team in Class AAAA. The next step is to advance beyond the second round, the furthest the program has gotten.

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