ATLANTA - The secret to winning has everything to do with losing according to Mays head coach Niketa Battle.
"Our seniors know what it feels like to lose a state championship.It really hurt when we lost that game to Northside-Warner Robins three years ago," said Battle. "We treat every game as a state championship now so that when you get there next time you won't be in awe, you won't be lost."
Battle's reference to the 2014 AAAAA championship game has special meaning to his upperclassmen. The narrow 25-18 loss to Northside came after the Raiders rode a three seed all the way to the Dome under then head coach Corey Jarvis. The pain associated with such a close defeat has turned into a gradual strengthening of the Raider football program-- on the field and off. They return eight starters from an 11-2 team that fell short to Tucker in the quarterfinals in 2016.
"We were not as strong last year. We got out-physicalled by Tucker," Battle told FOX 5 Sports. "In the offseason, they dedicated themselves to getting bigger, faster and stronger. Some of the kids gave up sports they played in the offseason just to dedicate themselves to getting in the weight room and staying in shape."
And the results were evident. Star wide receiver Maleak Bryant, who has offers from scores of schools including Maryland and Tennessee, went from 215 pounds to 225 pounds in a few months while South Florida commit, linebacker Antonio Grier also gained 10 pounds--he now plays at 220 on Friday nights.
The Raiders (8-1) are the head of the Atlanta Public Schools snake this season. Ranked second in the state in AAAAAA, Mays is only one example of APS schools who've achieved or over-achieved in 2017. Six of the nine APS football programs are headed to the postseason, including the South Atlanta Hornets who made the playoffs for the first time since 1995 under second-year head coach Brad Stephens.
"Our coaches are seasoned. A few years ago things were almost dead. Now, all the coaches are buying in, trying to prove that city schools can play as well as anybody else. It used to be the thinking that city schools were good for the first three quarters then they'd fall apart-- well it's not that way now." said Battle.
The Raiders' only loss this season came in the first game when they were shut out by Stockbridge 9-0 in a defensive battle. That's why this week's final regular season game with Northgate is so important. Beating the Vikings won't change the Raiders' playoff seeding, but it will offer another opportunity to face a Wing-T offense- the same formation Stockbridge used to beat them on August 26.
Nekita Battle's team continues to play each game in the memory of Marquez Montgomery, the 15-year old defensive lineman who was murdered by a relative in November of 2016. Every day the Raiders start and end the practice by breaking the huddle in his honor. Montgomery's father is still an active supporter of the Mays football program, often trading texts with Battle before and after games. Battle says the team uses the "68 Ways" mantra as a battle cry for the season, invoking their fallen teammate's old number whenever possible. Battle says the team won't rest until they bring a championship home for Marquez--to win in the face of tragic loss.
Good Day Atlanta's Paul Milliken will deliver the Team of the Week Hand Trophy to Battle and the Mays Raiders Thursday morning during a live pep rally celebration beginning in the 8 a.m. hour of GDA.