The foundation for the best season in program history actually was laid one year ago.
Going into Ridgeland's Georgia Class AAAA quarterfinal football game tonight, coach Mark Mariakis said the character that has carried the Panthers beyond the second round for the first time was molded midway through last season.
Just before the fifth week of the 2011 season, after having never dismissed a player in his 27-year coaching career, Mariakis kicked 10 players off the team, including three starters. The Panthers slipped to 1-4 with a loss that week to Dalton but regrouped to reach the second round of the postseason.
The stern coaching decision also served as an example of the character expected from the remaining players, and the move has paid off throughout this season as Ridgeland has overcome a multitude of off-the-field challenges.
"It was a very tough decision for me last year," Mariakis said. "But we needed to send a message to the rest of the team. Those kids had become a distraction from what we wanted to build here and what we were trying to accomplish, and I think it made us stronger as a program."
While the Panthers roster is dotted with future college prospects, talent alone would not have carried them this far. The off-the-field distractions began before the season with "recruiting" rumors from rival coaches about four players who transferred into the program since last year. It continued in August when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter challenging several activities in which the team took part that included prayer and church involvement as a team.
"I think the reason it didn't affect the team is because we as coaches never made any of that an issue," said Mariakis, who after going 4-16 in his first two years at Ridgeland has won at least seven games each of the last seven seasons. "Our administration did a great job of taking the religious issue off our plate and allowed us to just go do our jobs.
"When the kids didn't see us making an issue or being upset over it, they reacted the same way. We all just went to practice every day and went about our business. The great thing about the character of this team is that the kids have prepared the same in week 13 as they did in week 3. They're a very mature group.
"As far as the recruiting accusations, I never really listened to that because I know we were aboveboard on every kid that transferred here. I'm not going to do anything to compromise the character of this program or my reputation."
Another issue that could have derailed the season has been the heavy recruiting attention given to All-America safety Vonn Bell. Between recruiting services and college coaches, Mariakis said the demand for his and Bell's time has been nearly overwhelming since last summer. However, Bell disarmed much of the potential distraction by taking unofficial visits before the season, then narrowing his list of college choices to three once the season kicked off.
Since then, he has refused to discuss anything related with recruiting, instead concentrating on the season in progress.
"We've had a lot of things that could have really hurt the team overall," said senior Daniel Johnson, a three-year starter and a national finalist for the Wendy's High School Heisman Award. "We've got enough older guys on the team that know you just have to concentrate on that day's practice, the next game and not worry about anything that happens outside.
"It sounds simple, but we just don't let anything not related to the game distract us. Whether it was the group that wanted to make a big deal about the religious issue or whatever, we saw it as an opportunity to show what kind of young men we are. Sometimes God puts trials in life, but it's up to you to use them as an opportunity. We have a goal, and we're still playing for that goal."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...