By Rory Sharrock
All season long, North Clayton High School has played at a high-caliber level, yet its flown under the statewide radar as a powerhouse football team.
However, Eagles are birds of prey that have been known to fly well above the clouds with sharp vision to spot their target from a very long distance.
Here in the Southern Crescent, the North Clayton Eagles have soared to new heights, going 7-1 and 6-0 in league play with its eyes glued on capturing a region crown. With a win against Jonesboro on Thursday night at Tara Stadium, North Clayton will sit comfortably in its nest as the 2008 Region 4-AAAA champions.
Yet with so much going in their favor, the Eagles could easily be 1-7 on the heels of a sub-par 5-5 performance in 2007 and the scandalous exit of former head coach Don Shockley following the disclosure of racy photos on a computer used by him during the offseason.
However, the combination of bringing in a new coaching staff led by Rodney Hackney has proved to be the right decision in more ways than one and the proof-positive results are reflected on the scoreboard.
"It started with putting together a good staff," said Hackney. "My hat's off to those guys. I get a lot of credit for stuff that they do. They do a lot of work. We came in and stayed with the mindset of what we do. We've been at a lot of different programs and we know what to do. We knew discipline was the key. We knew this school's always had a lot of talent, but discipline was a big factor."
Although there was a new world order established within the program, the cloud of Shockley's departure still loomed over the school. But Hackney was unfazed and went about his business of establishing his own identity and creating an organization of winning as well as player accountability.
"I never really thought about it. It wasn't a big scare and that probably helped me by not thinking about it. It's funny because now that I look back on it, it was a real tender situation," said Hackney "Now that it's over with, I guess everything worked out. I know the area and what type of kids and parents live in this area. I knew if I go in there with my system and presented who I am, everything would fall into place."
To help increase the level of commitment and team unity, Hackney took his players to a camp outing in Covington just weeks prior to the start of summer practice, where they were given various group assignments that helped develop a strong chemistry within the locker room.
"It's really our discipline. Coach (Hackney) took us to a camp and it brought us together as a team. We all had partners and wherever we went, he had to be with us. If he wasn't with us, we got in trouble for it and this helped bring us together," said junior running back Clarence Jackson.
This philosophy has paid huge dividends as North Clayton has had its way with the opposition on both sides of the ball.
The team's Wing-T offense has turned players like Jackson into a college recruit's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. While their 3-5 defensive strategy with oxen like seniors Drew Thompson and Emmanuel "Too Tall" Dieke muscling their way up front has helped the unit average only 9.2 points allowed per game.
These athletes had a unique relationship with the former coaching staff, however, they've adjusted to their new leadership with both ends eating well from the fruits of their labor.
"Those coaches were really close to us. We had to stay together as a team and we worked hard during the offseason. Coach Hackney had the perfect system. All we had to do was to follow him. Everything all came into play," said Thompson.
Currently, North Clayton is in the midst of a six-game winning streak. During this run, the most points scored against them came in a 23-20 win at Griffin on Oct. 10.
Last Thursday, the Eagles beat Stockbrdge 30-6 at Tara Stadium to clinch their first playoff berth since 2004. Following this week's match with Jonesboro, the squad closes out the regular season with a home game versus Dutchtown.
If things continue to go in the right direction, North Clayton will host at least one postseason game.
Now, during intervals at practice, the phrase 'play till Christmas' has become as common as a team prayer.
Players and coaches hope to have more than sugar plums dancing in their head during the holiday season with a deep playoff run that concludes with a state championship.
"We're not going play like we have nothing to lose, we going to continue to play hard and still try to win a state championship," said Jackson.