By Brian Paglia
The questions Stockbridge coach Kevin Whitley heard most often when he left Creekside to take the vacant Tigers job two years ago are the same questions he hears now.
Considering the success Whitley had for six years at Creekside -- going 52-14 and making five consecutive state playoff appearances -- how could he leave for a program that went 1-9 the year before and hasn't made a playoff since the 1980s?
Considering the talent prevalent on Creekside teams on a consistent basis -- and with the twin brothers of former Creekside star and NFL rookie Eric Berry joining the Seminoles this season -- how could he leave for a program that hasn't had an all-state player since 2005?
"People ask me that all the time," Whitley said.
Whitley said he believes there will be a day when fans won't ask him why he left Creekside and the comforts of success he helped establish there. But, Whitley said to reach that day will take much work.
Whitley believes that work is starting to show itself in the effort and attitude of the team. After a tumultuous first season -- the Tigers lost their first six games and starting quarterback mid-season due to disciplinary reasons -- Whitley said this team has bought into his expectations.
"They're going to see a different Stockbridge," Whitley said. "It's not going to be the same old Stockbridge. They way we walk. The way we talk. The way we play. We're just going to have a better attitude. That attitude should translate to hustling and making the extra step, not being selfish."
Said senior linebacker Matt Clayton: "We have a different mentality than the seniors last year. I guess they were OK with losing. We're not."
Said senior slotback Marcellas Pope: "We're more focused this year. We're going to have better leaders this year. We're just tired of losing."
Losing was the topic at a sleepover for seniors that Whitley hosted this summer, a tradition he brought with him from Creekside. Whitley spoke to players about the commitment and attitude it takes to end the losing.
"You have to believe you deserve to win," Whitley said. "Just not be happy with your current circumstances. That's what we're trying to push to these guys, that we're just as good as anybody."
A night at Whitley's home offered Stockbridge's seniors a rare view into a different side of their coach.
They saw him as a husband. They saw him as a father playing with his daughter. They saw his memorabilia from playing in the Arena Football League and pictures of when he sported an afro.
"When I saw him in that environment as a family man, I was like, 'Yea, that's cool,'" Stockbridge senior cornerback Sha-Ron Anthony said. "He was with his kids the whole night and playing with them and stuff, and he still took time to talk to us and express how he felt about what we should do."
Players said it was the first time they had done something together as a group, which they considered a signal of cohesiveness developing.
"It was really for us to come together," Clayton said, "so we can all have one mindset as a senior group. We're the leaders, so we have to be all on one accord."
"It showed that we're becoming closer," Pope said, "because it was the first time that we've ever gotten together and done something like that."
And it was a sign to Whitley that Stockbridge can change. Even after going 2-8 last season, Whitley remains as convinced as ever that Stockbridge has the capacity to become a successful program.
"I didn't look at Stockbridge as right now," Whitley said. "I looked at it as the potential of what it could become and I believed in what I saw."
Whitley said he did his homework before he applied for the Stockbridge job. He considered the program's history and the school's surrounding community. A big selling point was the proximity of Stockbridge Middle School and the chance to develop a feeder system of players to the high school, a luxury Whitley never had at Creekside.
But all along, Whitley knew it would take time.
"It's almost like a guy looking for diamonds," Whitley said. "When you're digging in that dirt, you're going to get discouraged if you don't see what's ahead. But, after doing my homework ... I believed that if I just push a little dirt away, there's going to be a diamond.
"I'm willing to wait until I get to the diamond."