Over the past decade, the East Tartans have been a solid football program that has had the talent to compete with its fellow SOC I and Division VII brethren. Back-to-back SOC I titles in 2007 and 2008 under former head coach Darryl Davis, and a 19-3 record during that span, prove that East has showcased that talent in spades.
But other than accumulating a 7-4 overall record in 2011, East, with a 27-31 overall mark from 2009 through 2014, remained a step away from truly contending at the top of the SOC I perch as far as its latest set of classes were concerned.
However, since former assistant James Gifford officially took the reins of the head coaching post back in 2015, the expectations — and, as a result, the wins — have picked up in dramatic fashion.
So how has Gifford turned the tide of a program that now boasts a 16-6 overall record over the last two seasons? Again, it comes back to that ‘E’ word.
“We really have picked up the expectations in the offseason and have promoted the idea of going to college camps to compete against other players from other schools,” Gifford said. “We have worked hard to make sure that our players feel like they can compete with anyone. We are a small school with a desire to do big things, and we are working hard to carry over these standards in the classroom at East High School.”
Most people, however, will agree that Gifford’s hire, along with a special group of talents and personalities that included Scott, Akia Brown, Drew Lowe, Brady Douthat, Ethan Carver, and Ethan Gifford, among others, have blended into a perfect storm in East’s rapid ascension to the top of the SOC I ladder.
The improvement can be seen simply from Gifford’s first year to his second campaign as the Tartans’ head coach. In 2015, eight players made more than 30 tackles in 2015, while nobody collected more than six sacks per contest. Only one player — J.D. Hatcher — had more than 200 receiving yards, and Lowe threw more interceptions (14) than touchdown passes (eight), while the Tartans collected only 14 takeaways all year.
In 2016, each of those figures raised dramatically. An even dozen players made at least 30 or more tackles on the year, with four of those 12 hands — Matt Ferguson, Braiden Haney, Justin Kritzwiser, and Devon Stevens — collecting at least six or more sacks on the year. Haney, by himself, collected an astounding 20 sacks — the entire East team, in 2015, had only 15. In the secondary, Kyle Flannery nearly matched East’s entire 2015 interception total by picking off eight passes en route to leading East to a plus-eight takeaway margin compared to its 2015 total.
It also helped that Lowe, in his second year as a full-time quarterback, also dramatically improved his numbers. The senior hand threw for 21 touchdowns compared to just two picks en route to increasing his yardage output from 947 to 1,335, with three players — Brown, Kyle Flannery, and Kanyon Bruton — all collecting 235 yards receiving or more.
Those improvements, in addition to another dominant campaign from Brown — who ran for 1,273 yards and 12 touchdowns on 123 carries while collecting 1,572 all-purpose yards and 17 touchdowns in 2016 — allowed the Tartans to improve from a 6-5 mark to a 10-1 overall record.
“It’s all about raising the expectations of being consistent,” Gifford said of the program’s improvement. “The players understand that if they want to play on Friday nights, they need to earn the respect of their coaches and teammates. We have finally reached a point to where it takes care of itself. If a player misses a day of weights, it’s not without us knowing why instead of them just not showing up. We have 95 to 100 percent participation in every workout from our players. That’s a compliment to them at this point, not us coaches. We have been fortunate to have kids with the same mindset. They push each other to be great. We know that if we OWOO (out work our opponent) everyday, then it gives us a great chance when we play our opponents in a game. We still have tons to work and build on, but it’s coming together more everyday.”
Lowe, who finished his high school career as one of the more well-respected three-sport athletes in the area, believes that the consistent success came from the consistent message that Gifford constantly preached.
“(James) Gifford tells us, ‘You can control your attitude and effort at all times, and it’s all about what you’re going to give out in the classroom or in practice,’” Lowe said. “He’s taught us that our attitude and effort are the only things that we can control.”
That effort, or as Gifford likes to say, OWYO — outwork your opponent — is the most important fabric in any bit of success. It was proven in 2016 when East won five games by 22 points or more, and more importantly, when it won all five of its games decided by 14 points or less.
“He also preaches OWYO (our work your opponent) and posts things all over our team Facebook page,” Lowe said. “It’s about outworking your opponent and how you’re going to outwork your opponent when your opponent isn’t working. When we’re in practice, we always talk about the meaning of outworking our opponent. For example, if we’re playing Oak Hill one week, and it’s 85 degrees outside during a practice, are we going to let up on sprints because it is hot out or are we going to do a couple more? It’s about what you’re going to do to get better than the team you’re playing against.”
And that’s why Gifford’s template has always proven to be a good one to follow.
“I think that when you come to each game with the true expectation to win, because you have prepared properly to win, then the intensity and excitement automatically happens.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7