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Cougars seek new tradition

LIVINGSTON — The atmosphere surrounding the high school football program is unusually positive for a team coming off an 0-10 season. In fact, some may even venture to label Livingston as delusional. But the new attitude accompanying the new-look Cougars welcomes such criticisms, determining to defy naysayers by season’s end.

“The hunger that I see in their eyes in the weight room this summer and the competitiveness they’ve shown during 7-on-7,” second-year head coach Lenoise Richey said, “I expect them to come out looking to earn a lot of respect. They told me that is one of their goals. They want to be a respectable program.”

The Cougars will open the season on a 14-game losing streak that dates back to 2006. The school, rich in basketball tradition, last made the playoffs during the first Clinton administration. At that time, 1993, their current head coach was only 10 years old.

“Last year I played a lot of my young kids. We took our bumps and bruises,” Richey said. “But this year, it’s like the light bulb has finally come on. It’s like they’re seeing the game through a different set of eyes now.”

“Every little thing is special to them. Everything that other teams take for granted is a big deal for them,” Richey said. That fact provides explanation for the team’s excitement following its win in Tuesday’s 7-on-7 tournament in Demopolis. Aside from its 14-game losing streak, the team kicked off the summer going 0-5 during a 7-on-7 competition at Alabama State before suffering a similar fate at Hoover.

“The effort of course was there,” Richey said. “But we didn’t know how to finish.”

Richey said things began to turn around for his team when it visited Isabella for a 7-on-7 competition. Livingston posted a 4-3 mark at that event before its showing at the Demopolis exhibition.

For Richey’s team, the 7-on-7 competitions became a source of pride, something it could hang its hat on as the most intense portion of the summer approached.

“Going into two-a-days next week, it showed them that hard work does pay off. They believe in our system now more than ever and they’re ready to work harder than ever,” Richey said. “Our motto going into the summer was ‘Compete and find a way.’ Compete every down, every game and by ‘find a way,’ we mean no matter what happens, bad calls, busted plays, we’ve got to find a way to finish.”

The motto became a battle cry for the Cougars during 7-on-7 competitions as offensive and defensive players alike could be heard shouting the phrase during key situations. That phenomena alone provided encouragement to Richey, who spent the bulk of his first year attempting to build a rapport within his locker room.

“My immediate goal when I took over last year was trying to build a family as far as the football team being together,” the Gordo High and University of West Alabama graduate said. “I think the 7-on-7 camps, that’s where it helped us the most, our chemistry. You can see the difference in them from this summer to last summer.”

Richey said the efforts have begun showing fruit on the field.

“The verbal communication on the field, if a guy’s blitzing, receivers are looking back and (letting the quarterback know),” Richey said. “They look out for one another.”

That communication will prove key to the team’s success, as it will begin the 2008 season with a freshman quarterback under center. Richey said he is comfortable with the move not only because of the natural athletic ability of rookie signal-caller Demetrius Brown, but also the wealth of talent he has on the depth chart at receiver.

“I believe in order to be a successful coach, you must adapt to the athletes you have. This year, we are blessed to have receivers that will do whatever it takes to go and get the ball,” Richey said. “We won’t abandon the run by a long shot, but we’ve got the athletes to put the ball in the air.”

Richey reported his top three receivers, seniors Dontavia Smith, Damonte Tolliver and Tony Harris, have acted as mentors to their young quarterback, nurturing his confidence and encouraging him through his mistakes.

“Bad games he’s had this summer and in the passing camps,” Richey said of Brown, “they’ve come back and told him to make a simple adjustment. I can honestly say I haven’t heard any of my senior receivers put him down.”

Richey recalled a recent example of such an occurrence that helped affirm the foundation he and his staff have worked to build.

“At the end of practice, (Smith) pulled (Brown) aside and told him this is (Brown’s) offense, its (Brown’s) system. That’s pretty rare to hear a senior tell a freshman that this is his system,” Richey said. “They are the most humble group of senior receivers we’ve ever seen. I would say they are without a doubt the biggest reason that (Brown’s) been comfortable at quarterback as a freshman. He has the natural ability himself. They help with his confidence and comfort zone. He’s like their little brother. They take care of him.”

Richey understands how vital the relationship between his quarterback and receivers will be to Livingston’s success. But his faith in his team is not hinged solely upon that dynamic. Richey expresses the utmost confidence in a linebacking corps he believes will anchor a much-improved defensive unit. Richey bats not an eye when he speaks of the abilities of senior Kendrick Pratt, junior David Houston, sophomore James Bell and freshman Kevin McCollum.

Richey’s confidence in his team will face its next test Monday when the Cougars begin summer camp.

“The real hard work starts Monday,” Richey said of the two-a-days that will see Cougar players spend five hours a day on the practice field. “When we as coaches turn up the intensity, the kids have no choice but to turn up their intensity.”

The team will get its first regular season test when it visits Uniontown Aug. 29 to take on R.C. Hatch in the renewal of long-dead rivalry. From there, the schedule scarcely lets up as the 4A Cougars will face a slew of tough regional games including Greensboro. Livingston’s 2008 slate also consists of an archrival no current Cougar has ever beaten, Sumter County, and a much-anticipated rematch with a Holt squad that left the team with a bitter taste in 2007.

Still, as much as Richey believes in his squad and looks for its success to come on the field, he places his stock in the off-the-field progress he has seen.

“Last year we were 0-10, but all of my seniors passed the exit exam. That was probably my happiest moment of this previous year,” Richey, who endured losing 14 players to ineligibility in the summer of 2007, said. “This year I’ve got 100 percent of my kids eligible. To me, those things are priceless.”

Richey said his goals for the coming season are to see the combination of on-field and off-field success for which coaches long.

“(I want for) all my seniors to graduate and all of them to see how it feels to have a winning record,” Richey said. “My overall goal is to help young boys become young men. I just try to help them see that sometimes in life, things aren’t going to go the way that we expect them to go. But with the right amount of hard work, they can be successful at whatever their dreams are.”

For now, his players dream of putting Livingston football on the map by pulling off one of the biggest single-season turnarounds imaginable.

“If you ask any of them, they will tell you they are going to be in the playoffs this year and they truly believe that,” Richey said.

Even with so much of his team’s success laid at the feet of a freshman quarterback, Richey says he does not doubt his team because it does not doubt itself.

“He’s still young now and he hasn’t bought into this thing that Livingston can’t win in football,” Richey said of Brown, whom he often challenges by saying that it is impossible for a freshman quarterback to lead an 0-10 team to the playoffs. To which Brown responds with a confident, “Tell me that again in December.”