By TIM GAYLE
PIKE ROAD – Tuesday was moving day for the Pike Road football team.
It’s their third stop in as many years. They’ve practiced at the elementary school, at the middle school and now they’re at Georgia Washington, the former MPS middle school that will be the site of the new high school.
“You knew coming in there were going to be growing pains,” head coach Patrick Browning said. “This is my third school but this was part of the plan. I wanted to give the kids the week off before the start of practice and we had already planned on Monday and Tuesday, if we had to move, this was going to be moving day for us.
“I think a lot of the stress you can take away with proper planning. Going forward, on our schedule, we made sure we had that 11th week off (on Nov. 2) just in case we made the playoffs.”
There has been more planning than playing. There have been a few junior varsity games the past couple of years and an influx of talent this season as they prepare for their first official high school season as a Class 3A squad, but it took some scrambling before the Patriots finally found a home field at Alabama State.
Browning, like many of his players, will make his official debut – as a head coach — this fall after coaching on the high school and collegiate ranks.
“It’s rare, looking at history, what coaches get to start programs from scratch,” he said. “This area has always been known for talent. That was a big draw for me. The support of the community really drew me to the area. These kids are not going to realize it until they get out of school, or maybe later, but this is special.”
He started as a volunteer assistant at Auburn University when he was 19. After six months, he applied for an assistant coaching position at Beauregard High under then-head coach Smitty Grider. A graduate of Clay County, he coached receivers for three years before taking off a year for personal reasons. He returned to coaching in 2011 as an offensive coordinator at Dadeville under Richard White.
“We had some good years at Dadeville,” Browning recalled. “We averaged 40-something points a game for about three years and made the playoffs.”
His next stop was a brief one-year stint in the collegiate ranks as a quarterbacks coach at Prairie View A&M before returning to Dadeville in 2015. The last three years has been at Pike Road, preparing a junior varsity squad for its 2018 debut.
“I didn’t even know Pike Road was starting up athletics,” he said. “A buddy of mine told me about it so I started digging into it, visited the area. It looked like a great opportunity.
“When I came in, during the spring, they were seventh and eighth graders. Our smallest classes are our 10 th and 11th graders. We’ll dress out right at 50 kids. Some of those will be your better eighth graders.”
He had to build a coaching staff from scratch as well. There’ll be four assistants on the staff who teach in the school — offensive coordinator Brian Dickerson, who moved in from Florence; defensive coordinator Brandon Bailey, also from Florence; assistant head coach Will Beason, who will coach the offensive line and secondary; and Josh Clark, who will coach outside linebackers and receivers and is from Pike Road. There are three more volunteer coaches to round out the staff.
Browning knows he has the talent to win in a classification that is historically weak in the south half of the state. His quarterback is CJ Paymon, who transferred in from Montgomery Academy. One of his top receivers is Bryce Kelly, who transferred in from Trinity. Startup programs don’t fare so well their first season, but Browning thinks the Patriots can buck that trend.
Stanhope Elmore won seven games in its inaugural year (1965). Jeff Davis won six with a built-from-scratch schedule in 1968. Trinity Presbyterian won seven in 1973 as its started out in the Alabama Independent School Association ranks.
Most programs struggle mightily. Central Alabama won two games in 1971, the same number of wins as Macon East Montgomery (1996), Evangel Christian (2001) and Prattville Christian (2006). Two more than the winless debut of East Memorial in 2004. All the planning and all the practice can’t substitute for the real thing.
His friend and mentor, Grider, started the Park Crossing program in 2014. The Thunderbirds flirted with history before getting blitzed late in the season by Stanhope Elmore, costing them a berth in the state playoffs. They rebounded the next week with a 54-0 win over Jemison to set the modern standard for debut seasons in central Alabama with a seven-win season.
No area team has ever reached eight wins or a playoff berth in its inaugural season.
“I’ve talked with Smitty and leaned on him for advice,” Browning said. “What’s funny about it is he not only went through it, but he went through it nine miles down the road. The biggest thing he told me is there will be things that, as much as you prepare, you’re not going to be ready for, so you have to train your coaches and your kids to adapt on the fly and not get rattled.”
Pike Road opens its historic first season on Saturday Aug. 25 at home against Calhoun to be held at ASU at 11:00am.
“You have a mixture of emotions,” Browning said. “I would say the one word that describes us the best, overall as a staff and with the kids, is that we’re just excited. We’re ready to play. They’re ready to compete.”