By Kelly McElroy, Houma Courier
Ellender High football coach Terry Washington took over the program before the 2011 season, and it was coming off back-to-back 0-10 campaigns, was 11-54 overall from 2004-10, had not made the playoffs since 2007 and the number of players coming out for the team each season was dwindling.
After a 0-10 year in 2011 in which Washington and the Patriots made some progress, Ellender went 4-6 in 2012, which included 3-1 start, broke a 32-game losing streak and just missed out on a Class 4A playoff berth.
Last season, the Patriots went 5-5 in the regular season and got that elusive playoff spot before falling in the first round. Now expectations surrounding the Patriots are growing.
I spoke with Washington, a Baton Rouge native who also turned around struggling football programs at Scotlandville and Jeanerette, earlier this week at the Houma school for a 10 questions session regarding the program.
Question:Knowing the program had fallen on hard times, what were some of the reasons you wanted the job here at Ellender back in 2011?
Answer:'I knew Ellender had athletes. I knew I could take it from a basketball school to a school with a more well-rounded athletic program. I think it is a testament to the young men and coaches who bought in. You can take those kind of athletes and develop them into skill guys on the football field. I did my research and saw this was a basketball school. I knew the athletes were here. I just had to figure out the problem, which was taking some of the kids from down the bayou who don't have a feeder program and developing those guys, and we have been able to do that. We have been patient and the kids have bought in and we have been able to turn it around.'
Q:What were some of the first things you did to get moving in the right direction?
A:'We just took baby steps. We went one step at a time. I didn't lie to the kids and say we were going to go 10-0. I told them and the coaching staff we might go 0-10, but it's not about wins and losses right now. We are building for the future. Once the coaches and the kids understood the process, it made things much easier.'
Q:How much did your experiences of turning programs around in the past help?
A:'It made me be patient. At the end of the day you have to develop young men and develop talent. Patience is something I have learned over the years because you have to be patient. You are not going to win right away, especially when you are not used to winning. Losing is contagious and winning is contagious. We had to teach them how to win and we did that with the ninth grade team.'
Q:Although you guys made strides that first year, you still went 0-10. How hard was it to keep the guys together?
A:'It was hard because we couldn't keep saying the same thing week after week because the kids stopped buying it. We kept stressing patience. We told them it was going to take time to build this program. It takes time. We told them to be patient and everything would work out.'
Q:How much did having a good core group of young athletes like then sophomore quarterback Dustin Creppel help the process in that first year?
A:'It made life a little easier. We had some experienced skill guys, but we have lost them now. Now moving forward now we have adjusted a little bit. We were a passing team, but we have more of an inexperienced quarterback, though he is capable. We are going to rely on our offensive and defensive lines now. The game is won in the trenches, and we are going to rely on those guys to win games.'
Q:What did that first victory at Terrebonne to start the 2012 season feel like?
A:'I was excited and happy for this community because they had endured losing for so long. I was especially happy for those seniors who hadn't won a game since they had been here. I knew it was big for the program as a whole because now we had that belief. It is hard to tell a kid to come into practice or the weight room after another loss so it was important we broke that streak because those kids understood if you are going to get it done on Friday night you have to come to practice and you have to come to the weight room. You have to pay the price. That was important for the program.'
Q:What did it feel like to bring the team to the postseason last year?
A:It was another huge step. We hadn't been to the playoffs since 2007. We got a taste of it last year. In past summers, we averaged about 40 or 50 guys. This year, we had 60, and we had 85 guys out this spring. You can see the excitement around the program. Once you get to the playoffs, the guys want to get back, and they want to put in the work to make it back. I am excited about this group of guys because they have been in the weight room. They have done the work outside, and they have conditioned. It was big for the program to make it to the playoffs.'
Q:How much does the football program take from the recent success of other sports at the Ellender, like the boys and girls basketball teams and the softball team?
A:'I watched (highly successful former girls basketball coach) Kenneth Dixon when I first got here, and I said I wanted to be like that. I wanted to work like that and have my program be like his. It is important when our kids see our basketball teams go to the quarterfinals or our softball team go to the quarterfinals, they can use that moving forward. That is what we want to do. The softball team lost in the playoffs one year, but they got that playoff game here at home the next year and won and went to the quarterfinals and our guys saw that so it really helps.'
Q:What are some of the challenges the program still faces?
A:'It's always a challenge when you don't have some of the necessary equipment, like a sled or a chute, that some of the other schools in the area have. We have done a lot with less. For us to get the playoffs without some of the stuff we need is a testament to the coaching staff and to these young men.'
Q:How far can Ellender football go?
A:'Of course we want to get back to the playoffs. I feel if this program can finally get to the point where we can play a home playoff game, that is the next step. We have been in the playoffs. We know what that feels like. Our goal is to take that next step and win a playoff game. We don't want to just get in. We want to host a game and win. That is our goal right now.'