11/26/12 — Players buy into coach's philosophy, reap late-season rewards

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Players buy into coach's philosophy, reap late-season rewards

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 26, 2012 1:46 PM

They gathered around their coach with sweat-lined faces that showed their frustration.

A four-touchdown deficit with eight minutes to go was undoubtedly an insurmountable deficit to overcome.

"Don't give up" their faithful fans shouted from the sidelines.

"Don't quit" shouted their coach in the huddle.

Princeton could have quit the final week of October when it played host to Rosewood, and fell behind 14-0 early in the fourth quarter. But the resilient Bulldogs resuscitated a fading heartbeat that grew stronger with each play on a miserable rainy night and the fire in their belly grew red hot.

Quick-strike scores bolstered the team's confidence.

Princeton finally played up to its capability and took its archrival to triple overtime before losing on a two-point conversion. That close defeat awoke some early-season demons and rekindled the doubts the community had about its first-year coach.

"Just believe in what we're doing," Derrick Minor had said to his charges every day in practice, every Friday night before kickoff and each time the team gathered for its post-game huddle.

You could sense something special was going to happen.

The final at-large squad selected for the 16-team draw in the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 1-A (small-school) eastern bracket, Princeton took advantage of every opportunity to make itself better. The Dogs studied film, minimized their mistakes and avenged regular-season losses against conference foes North Duplin and Rosewood.

Sandwiched between those two satisfying results was an impressive 31-point, second-round triumph over perennial power North Edgecombe.

You could see the confidence in the players' eyes, a swagger in their step, emotion and an intensity that hadn't been associated with previous Bulldog teams. These boys had finally embraced their coach's philosophy and it worked for them.

Before the season began, Minor pointed out a rusty, black lunch pail and a hammer that sat on a shelf in his office. Different positive messages were written in white letters on every side of the pail and seen by the players every day. The hammer hung underneath and was reserved for that one single player who "laid the wood" on an opponent on Friday night. The recipient carried the hammer onto the field the next game night.

Those little things along with steady weight-room work and film-study sessions changed the mindset of a program that had been mired in mediocrity for two-plus decades. Its only flash of success was a 10-win campaign, runner-up finish in the Carolina 1-A Conference and third-round playoff appearance -- all in 2009.

Minor might not have seemed the best fit for a football-starved community that ached to relive the 1970s and 80s when Princeton was a perennial favorite in the playoffs. But he's proven that wins and losses are not the main factors that solely define a successful program.

It takes hard work and dedication.

It takes self belief.

And it involves pride.

The Bulldogs' phenomenal postseason run ended with a 22-point loss at Plymouth on Friday evening. Although the players wept openly and a misty-eyed Minor choked back a few tears of his own, you could tell that Princeton football had gained respect and was back on the map.

"The bottom line ... tonight wasn't our night," Minor said. "We accomplished so much with this team. It's hard not to be disappointed, but the guys played hard and no one expected us to be here. This is only going to give us momentum into the offseason and motivate our guys.

"We're sophomore- and junior-loaded, so I'm hoping this will get these guys super excited about offseason workouts, and get them into the weight room so they can become bigger and stronger."

And restore a program that no longer wishes to settle on being competitive, but leaves everything on the field -- win or lose.