Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
Austin coach David Norwood corrects receiver Cornelius Birt during a drill. The Black Bears enter this season after winning four of their last five in 2006.
HIGH SCHOOL COUNTDOWN
Pointing toward success
After not making playoffs since 2003, Austin believes it's over the hump
Sixth in a series.
By Brooke Milam
firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2460
A small black sign with white print hangs in the Austin High football locker room, and it reads: "How do you want to be remembered?"
It's a simple question that head coach David Norwood has asked his players during the off-season.
And in his fourth year leading the Black Bears, Norwood said he thinks his current squad has the ability to be remembered as a catalyst in Austin football history.
"This is a team that years from now when the program is going good, they will be able to trace it all the way back to this group and say, 'Those are the guys that turned things around,' " Norwood said. "I think their dedication is where it needs to be. They're working toward a common goal."
When Norwood arrived at Austin in 2004, he found a team depleted of confidence, but not without talent. It has taken three seasons for Norwood to instill a winning attitude in his players, and the players said this year could complete the process.
"The last few years at Austin, we haven't won a whole lot of games, and it was contagious," senior running back Kayne Stuart said. "But we're on a winning streak now, and that can be contagious, too. You can tell this year is going to be different. Everything — you can even tell in the way we look. We look more like winners."
Austin has won only 10 games in the past three seasons and hasn't made the playoffs since 2003, but Norwood has good reason to believe that this could be the team that turns the corner.
Austin ended 2006 by winning four of its last five games for a 4-6 finish, but missed the playoffs because of early-season struggles with turnovers.
The Black Bears closed out the season by beating rival Decatur 17-14 — a win that has energized Austin all off-season.
"At the end of last year, you could just see us coming together more," junior middle linebacker D.T. Shackleford said. "We developed some at the end of last year with the winning streak, and it carried over into the summer. It was so big that it's come over into this year."
On paper, the Black Bears back up their coaches' claims that a good year is ahead.
Among a group 75 strong, including 21 seniors, Austin returns 10 starters on offense and seven on defense.
"Defensively we're going to be sound and offensively we're going to be strong and run the football because that's what we demand," Norwood said.
Junior quarterback Justin Jones returns with starting experience from last season. Senior three-year starting center Xalyn Peek returns as Jones' protection on the offensive line, along with seniors Jeffery Snead and Greg Thomas.
Junior fullback D'Nico Best is also back to help stabilize the offense, and Stuart, an all-purpose weapon last season, will play running back, rebounding from a torn knee ligament suffered in spring practice.
After Austin graduated the top two leading tacklers from last year — inside linebackers Ty Chancelor and T.T. Martin — Shackleford has moved from defensive end to linebacker to help fill the void. Senior Steven Wright will step into a starting linebacking spot, too.
Seniors Anthony Thomas, Cornelius Jenkins and D'Neiko Johnson again will lead Austin's secondary.
With experience on the field to build upon, Austin also has brought in several new coaches from programs with plenty of postseason know-how to their credit.
Wide receivers coach Steven Kerby and defensive coordinator Rich Dutton have joined the Black Bears' staff from Russellville, and running backs coach Craig Flanigan comes to Austin from Walker.
The additions could make the difference in another year of almosts for Austin and a year of milestone achievements.
At the end of last season, Austin believed it was a playoff caliber team, but the Black Bears couldn't recover from an 0-5 start and missed postseason. A crowded field at the top of Class 6A, Region 8 included Sparkman, Huntsville, Bob Jones and Florence last year.
orwood said he didn't know who might be left out of that group this year, but he knows his team has the potential to grab one of the four playoff spots that go to each region.
"I want to be one of the four that get in, and I think we very well could be," Norwood said.
Austin High at a glance
Last year: 4-6. Did not make the state playoffs.
Head coach: David Norwood (10-20 in three seasons at Austin; 29-25 in five seasons as a head coach).
Noteworthy: Interest is up at Austin. Among 75 players, the group boasts 21 seniors, three of whom have come out for football for the first time in their last year of high school. ... Austin produced 22 turnovers in an 0-5 start last season before keeping turnovers to a minimum in three straight wins. The Black Bears ended up winning four of their last five games. ... Austin finished last year on a high note by beating city rival Decatur for the first time since 2001.
- Brooke Milam
Austin High schedule, results
8-30 at Hartselle
9-7 at Huntsville (R)
9-14 Florence (R)
9-21 at Sparkman (R)
10-5 at Bob Jones
10-12 Hazel Green (R)
10-19 at Grissom (R)
10-26 Buckhorn (R)
11-2 at Decatur
(R)-Class 6A, Region 8
vs. Hartselle L, 37-34
vs. Huntsville L, 20-3
at Florence L, 46-30
vs. Sparkman L, 44-14
at Russellville L, 42-28
vs. Bob Jones W, 19-17
at Hazel Green W, 29-8
vs. Grissom W, 17-10
at Buckhorn L, 31-10
vs. Decatur W, 17-14
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