PCA pair spearheaded unlikely run to playoffs|[12/09/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 9, 2007

Barber shaved defenses with breakout season

When the season started, Austin Barber and the Porters Chapel Eagles were in a bit of a funk.

They lost two of their first three games, and both Barber and his teammates were staring at the real possibility of a lost season. No playoff berth for the first time in four years, no legacy for the seniors.

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So they did something about it. The Eagles got serious about football, and Barber got really serious. The senior tailback rededicated himself, working and practicing harder to do what he could to get his team out of its doldrums. His efforts led to a 1,600-yard, 18-touchdown season, PCA’s fourth straight playoff berth, and the Vicksburg Post’s Offensive Player of the Year award for himself.

Barber is the third straight PCA player to win the award, following running back Chris Mixon in 2005 and quarterback Hayden Hales last season. Barber narrowly edged out Vicksburg High quarterback Stanton Price for the honor in voting by the Post sports staff.

“I really didn’t think I was going to get it. I knew Stanton had a great year and figured he would get it,” Barber said. “I just gave it all I’ve got on every play. I knew I’d have a shot at it if I got over 1,500 yards.”

Price threw for 1,680 yards and 13 touchdowns for VHS, but he didn’t put the Gators on his back the way Barber did. Starting with a 169-yard, four touchdown performance against Heidelberg Barber had six straight 100-yard games. He had a dozen touchdown runs of 20 yards or longer, providing a big-play threat the team lacked in its passing game.

Barber’s performance allowed the Eagles to recover from their 1-2 start and win eight of their last 10 games.

“He was the majority of our offense by about halfway through the season. We weren’t throwing but about six or seven times a game by the end,” PCA coach Randy Wright said.

The year didn’t start that way, though.

For the first few games, Barber was battling a case of senioritis. He split carries with junior Travis Thornell and looked like anything but a player of the year candidate. He ran for 153 yards and four touchdowns against Veritas on Sept. 21, but it was his only 100-yard effort in PCA’s first six games.

That changed starting with the big game against Heidelberg. Over the last five games of the regular season and first round of the playoffs, he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards.

“He started off slow and just flipped a switch,” PCA lineman Matt Hall said.

Barber said he just got a sudden sense of urgency.

“I wasn’t pushing myself in practice. I knew it was something I had to get done my senior year,” he said. “At the beginning of the year I wasn’t in too good of shape. As the year went along I wanted the ball as much as I could get it.”

Barber finally ran out of steam in the playoffs. Eventual Class A champion Glenbrook held him to 56 yards in a 26-8 loss in the second round. That was a couple games short of the Eagles’ goal of a state title, but still enough to secure this group’s place in school history.

PCA lost 20 starters from a team that went 30-7 over the last three years and reached the state semifinals twice. Barber was not one of the two returning starters, but Wright joked that he should have been.

“I probably should have let him carry the ball more last year,” Wright said with a laugh.

Despite loss of 20 starters, Eagles excelled

On the first day of practice in 2006, Randy Wright assembled his Porters Chapel football team and ran through the playbook to see what he had.

The large, experienced group of seniors ran every play to perfection.

On the first day of practice in 2007, Wright did the same thing. The new group of Eagles got about a half-dozen plays right.

What could have been a long year, though, turned into an exceptional one. Wright transformed a team that lost 20 starters into a group good enough to reach the second round of the MPSA Class A playoffs. PCA won eight of its last 10 games to overcome a horrid 1-2 start, and Wright earned the Vicksburg Post’s Coach of the Year award for the third time in four seasons.

Wright also won the award in 2004 and 2005. In four seasons, he has led the Eagles to four playoff berths and earned a place among some of the best coaches in Warren County history. Among people who have coached at least 50 games, only national hall of famer Lum Wright and former Temple and Vicksburg High coach Houston Markham have a higher winning percentage than Wright’s .765.

“I don’t really think about stuff like that,” said Wright, who has a career record of 39-12 in four full seasons and one game as an interim coach in 2000. “It’s nice to be mentioned with guys like that. They’re legendary coaches and I’m just starting out. The only thing I think about is winning the next game.”

Wright proved his ability this year.

For three seasons, he took a talented group of players to the playoffs. He did a great job harnessing their ability — two of Wright’s players, Chris Mixon and Hayden Hales, won the Post’s Offensive Player of the Year awards in 2005 and 2006, respectively — but also had a lot to work with.

This season, with the large group of graduated seniors, he had to start over. The only two starters he had back, Matt Hall and Matt Cranfield, were playing different positions than they had last year. A rash of preseason injuries took several more projected starters from him and depleted his coaching staff.

Defensive coordinator Mike Roach hit a blocking sled awkwardly on the first day of two-a-days and injured his shoulder. He only attended a few practices the rest of the season. With two other assistants, Chris Busby and Melvin Wiley, spending most of their practice time with the junior high team, Wright was left to coach alone for most of the varsity practices.

Help didn’t arrive until the midway point of the season, when former assistant Robert Simms learned of the situation and volunteered to coach the defense. Busby and Wiley also finished up the junior high season around the same time and were able to do more with the varsity.

“They really provided a great deal of help. It was a collective effort from everybody,” Wright said. “It’s very difficult. The guys were there when they could, but there were times I was the lone ranger.”

Wright also works at his family’s restaurant and has two young children. Between work, coaching and family, the days turned into a blur, he said. After finishing work and watching film, he often only had a few hours to sleep before getting up to do it all over again.

“I have a great wife that takes care of the kids, and she allows me to do that. And my dad let’s me do it,” Wright said.

On the field, Wright tinkered with his lineups until he found combinations that worked. He moved Brad Pennington to fullback, which helped tailback Austin Barber explode for a 1,600-yard season. He switched Cranfield from linebacker, where he was struggling, back to his old position of defensive end. Cranfield ended up with 112 tackles and eight fumble recoveries.

Wright also switched up the practices, all but eliminating contact to help heal his battered team while focusing on conditioning and repetition.

“Practice changed. Every aspect changed. We were working harder,” Hall said. “We put in more plays. Practice wasn’t relaxed, but it changed a lot.”

What didn’t change was PCA’s success. The Eagles finished 9-4, their fourth straight season with at least nine wins. Last season, Wright became the winningest coach in school history. This year, his team sent a message that it wasn’t just a good group of players, it was a good program that will continue to be a factor.

“Coach Wright is going to tell you you’re going to be good. He came out at the beginning of the year and said we’ve got a chance,” Barber said. “When he says stuff like that I believe him. If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did.”