As I walked into Southern Crescent stadium in Riverdale, just a few moments before Friday’s Eastside-North Clayton football game, I heard an interesting comment about the Eastside Eagles.
The Eastside band filled the left side — from my vantage point — of the visitor’s stands, and someone, presumably a North Clayton fan, made a good natured dig at the size of Eastside’s band.
As the North Clayton team was getting set to emerge from the locker room, this gentleman said, “You know what they say about schools with big bands, right? They say those schools have big bands because they don’t have any athletes.”
He chuckled a bit, and so did a few onlookers within earshot of his comment. I kept my stride with a wry smile on my face — the kind of smile where, if someone would’ve saw it, they may have thought I was trying to keep a juicy secret.
And, I guess, in a way I was. Although I’m not so sure Eastside’s football ability is a secret right now. The Eagles, both under coach Troy Hoff, and before, have been a picture of consistency.
Three straight seven win seasons, and four out of the last five. Before that, a couple of 11-win, deep playoff run campaigns under coach Rick Hurst. They’ve been impressively steady if not dramatically spectacular. And maybe this senior class, featuring players like quarterback Austin Holloway, defensive back Eric Stokes and tailback Anthony Brown, is the clearest version of that consistency example.
Forget how highly recruited they are or are not. This senior class can ball. And it’s because they’re disciplined, passionate about playing for each other and proud to be a group of Eastside Eagles.
In my first interview with Stokes, I can’t forget how his voice stepped up an octave or two when I asked him about how good it feels when he and his teammates get a chance to prove doubters and naysayers wrong.
He talked about that “chip on our shoulders,” and he gregariously chided anyone who would look down on the Eagles because they didn’t always pass the eye test.
And I’ll admit, once upon a time, I may have been one of those eye test judgers. Before coming to The Covington News, I spent the last six years covering high school sports in what’s called the Southern Crescent. It’s primarily made up of Henry and Clayton counties, as well as Fayette and Spalding, depending on who you’re talking to.
Throughout those years, I got some casual, on-the-outside-looking-in glances at Eastside whenever the Eagles would play Henry or Clayton County teams. And whenever they’d win, or whenever I’d peak at Eastside’s record as I would prepare to write a game preview story, I would always kind of ask, “What is with this Eastside team? They’re always hanging around. Always good. Year in and year out.”
They never looked to be the biggest team. Seldom were they the strongest or fastest on the field. But the Eagles always seemed to know how to beat you by not beating themselves. And you don’t have to be a football aficionado to know that not beating yourself is the best recipe for success in athletics.
Now that I’ve got the insider’s look at Eastside, I understand why they are so good. They’re well-coached. They have athletes who play within the system. They have an infectious fan base. They’ve got a ton of school pride. And on the high school level, those elements can win you a lot of ball games that talent or speed alone cannot.
So this past Friday, when that guy made that comment about Eastside’s band being big because the school didn’t have enough athletes, I definitely had to chuckle to myself, because I knew better.
My short time around Eastside football has reinforced to me the danger in judging a book by the cover. I don’t know if North Clayton took that little lighthearted jab seriously. Probably not. Most times athletes are too zeroed in at the task at hand to pay attention to the little things fans and onlookers have to say.
But I couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the oohs and ahhs coming from North Clayton fans when they saw Eric Stokes bolt down the sideline for a kickoff return touchdown. Or when they remarked how unassumingly good Holloway is at quarterback, or how violent Anthony Brown and Taylor Carter run out of the backfield.
I smiled when I heard someone exclaim out loud, “Who is that kid,” after Spurgeon Gaither blocked a punt — just one series removed from his scoop-and-score, 31-yard touchdown run. And when Eastside’s 34-0 triumph had concluded, I so wanted to find that guy who made the crack about the band and ask him if he’d be willing to revise his opinion.
This Friday, Eastside will host a first round playoff game against another tough-as-nails Southern Crescent team that I used to cover. The Spalding Jaguars probably have skill position speed that Eastside hasn’t seen since Newton – I put Woodward Academy in a completely different class.
But one thing is for sure — the Jaguars probably haven’t seen a more well-disciplined bunch than what they’ll see Friday night against coach Troy Hoff’s Eastside Eagles.
And I hear the Eastside band isn’t bad, either.
Gabriel Stovall is the Sports Editor at The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 as well as our sports Twitter page @CovNewsSports.