(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON -- As the Sikeston Bulldog football team walked off the field after a 27-26 loss to Farmington on Oct. 30, there weren't many smiles. But after reflection, the Bulldogs season shows how the program is heading in the right direction after several years of disappointing seasons.
Kent Gibbs, who just completed his second season at the helm of the Bulldogs, feels his team's 5-5 performance in 2008 is a big step in the right direction.
(Photo by Josh Mills, Staff)
The Bulldogs did many things well this year. They out-gained opponents offensively 3,602 to 3,378 yards. They committed only 14 turnovers to their opponents 19. They also gained 11 more first downs than their opponents and had a third down conversion rate of 40.7 percent. They were also 99 yards less penalized than their competition as well.
Gibbs feels that steady improvement from week to week was one of the biggest keys to the improvement from last year.
"The biggest one (key to success), which sounds like 'coach talk' because it is, is that I felt we get better as the season went along," he said. "Last year, we were not able to do that. This year I honestly feel like we got better every game."
Gibbs also cited hard work and concentration on the practice field.
"Before the season was over, we had a couple weeks of really good practice," he said. "I'm hoping that means we have learned how to practice and how to do it four days a week, not one or two, and that we have learned how to take care of our business. I'm a firm believer that you are only going to be as good as you practice. One of the positives out of this year is that for sure."
Gibbs pointed to defense as an area that has come a long way, but needs continued improvement.
"We were better on defense than last year, much better," he said. "But to get to the point where we want to be defensively, where we are slowing down the points being scored, we have to improve on defense what we have do with that is continue to build strength in the weight room and continue playing physical and aggressive."
Gibbs said much of the offseason emphasis for both sides of the ball will be on strength training and conditioning.
"I feel our biggest concentration as a team definitely has to be in the weight room because we are really behind in that regard," he said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at the size of some of the kids we play to see that is something we really need to work on. When you talk 'X's and O's' we want to get better defensively and expand what we already do well offensively."
Gibbs plans to get a fast start to his team's offseason training and team building.
"We will start our offseason conditioning and lifting on Nov. 17," he said. "We will go two days a week until Christmas, after that we will go three days a week with our voluntary workouts. What we hope to achieve is to get as many kids as we can to get committed to making themselves better.
"We will also have a lot of team building exercises like we did last year. I think it will be a good chance for us to grow closer as a team."
Gibbs feels that his players positive attitudes and willingness to learn were major difference makers as well.
"Overall, we (the coaches) felt like our kids listened to what we had to say," he said. "They at least made an attempt to do what we wanted them to do. We still need to work on getting full output on those attempts, not a negative thing, just something we need to continue to improve on. I think our kids did a good job of listening and focusing week in and week out. That doesn't mean some weren't better that others, but overall we did well with that."
Gibbs said that one instance in particular demonstrated his teams maturity this season was before the team's Sept. 19 game at Jackson.
"We had to wait a couple of hours to play because the wind and the rain," Gibbs said. "I was worried about how our kids were going to react. I went into the locker room and they were all huddled around a portable DVD player watching Jackson game footage as opposed to goofing off. That shows a lot about their maturity level and attitude."
Gibbs and his staff return all of their starters except for three senior leaders, Charlie Bohannon, CA Strickland, and Gabe McClung.
"We are only losing three starters," Gibbs said. "The tough thing is our losses to graduation are key leaders. From year to year, coaches can replace players. But it's hard to replace leaders. We will need some leadership to step up next year because we will have a void there with Charlie Bohannon and CA Strickland, who I feel were our main leaders, graduating."
Gibbs notes that his staff will have to have some new leaders step up to cope with the reshuffle of his players positions this offseason.
"We are evaluating everything right now from our players to our program in general," Gibbs said. "So I suspect we will have some position changes to address our needs next year. But you have to feel good with that many kids coming back. If we were able to stop today and start again tomorrow, we would be really good. But there are so many variables between now and the start of next season that we will just have to take care of."
Gibbs said much of his team's success this year is due to departing senior quarterback Bohannon, who passed for 970 yards in just eight games, the best showing by a Sikeston quarterback in five years.
"Charlie (Bohannon) changed himself as a football player completely from last year to this year," he said. "We talked about what we expected of him last winter and what he had to do. He certainly came in from the first to last whistle of the year ready to play for us. He was a great team leader. He had a good grasp of our offense. He did a good job of keeping things moving in the right direction. It is a shame he got injured for those two games, but he was able to come back and finish strong for us. He was a very valuable person who will be hard to replace."
This year, the Bul-ldogs recorded their first non-losing season since 2002 and played in their first meaningful week 10 game with playoff ramifications since 1999. Gibbs feels these are signs of progress.
"It's hard sometimes to measure progress," he said. "One of the hardest things to do is to get kids to believe without proof. Believing without proof when you are 2-8 (2007 season), believing without proof through those winter months when there hasn't been success in a long time. That is hard to do. I think that when you take into consideration that we have had some tough times as a program over the last few years, coupled with the fact that we don't overwhelm anybody with brute strength or 65 football players, you have to feel good with the progress we have made."
Gibbs said the progress was due to a few different factors.
"We made that progress for a couple of reasons," he said. "Number one, the kids began to really buy in to our whole system about week three. Not that they weren't working before, but that was the point where our kids really began to believe what we were talking about. Things began to click and once they began to improve that really carried over into the games."
Gibbs also felt the coaching staff did a good job getting some freshman up to the high school level, allowing coaches to teach just one position as opposed to two.
"When you put all of that together with a lot of kids coming back, you have to feel good about what we did and where we have the potential to go as a team and a program," Gibbs said. "At the same time, we are what we are, we are a .500 football team. If we are going to get better we have to commit this offseason to making that happen."
Gibbs feels that the right approach to all levels of Sikeston football bodes well for the future.
"We don't just want to have seasons, we want to develop a program," he said. "That starts at the lower levels. That is where you love or non-love of the game starts."
Gibbs said the success of a football program is due to a cooperative effort.
"Hiring a new football coach is not the only answer to building a program," he said. "There are all kinds of people who have their 'finger in the pie' so to speak. To make it click, everyone from top to bottom needs to be on the same page, whether it is the superintendent of schools, the high school principal, the athletic director, the head football coach, all the assistants and lower level coaches, all the way to the parents have to be on the same page. We feel like we really have everyone working together at this point. There is no doubt that, that cooperation makes my job a lot easier."
Gibbs also commented about the growing enthusiasm and fan support for Bulldog football, and the need for it to continue to grow.
"Kids are easily swayed sometimes, and fan support can do that," he said. "If a kid is really a competitor, he likes to play in front of big crowds. There is no doubt in my mind that having more people as a following, knowing that there are more people starting to care about you and your program, that gives you that internal boost. We do feel like people did start to pay more attention to and follow us. Sometimes that was just stopping a player or coach and ask them how things were going. It would really be nice to pack every home game and to have a good following on the road."
Gibbs noted that an instance in the season, also at the Jackson game, showed his team's desire to play on the big stage.
"Before the Jackson game, our kids were excited about the prospect about playing in front of 6,000 people," he said. "Obviously that didn't happen because of the rain. But before the rain, during our warm-ups, I had three or so players say to me, 'Coach, this is what it is all about.' The rain wiped all that out. But I know our kids would really like to play in front of those big crowds with a lot on the line."
Gibbs is optimistic about the 2009 season, but says that his players will have to work for to achieve their collective goal.
"We have a really nice opportunity next year if we reach out there and get it," he said. "We can make strides in wins and losses, because that is what people look at. We can also make strides in other areas that are important. I think there is an opportunity for our kids to be a part of something special as a football team next year. They are going to have to completely buy in to everything we want them to do, like attending the offseason work outs and summer camps. If they do that, they will have an opportunity to be better than we were this year."