MARIETTA, Ga - It's tough to be a Pope Greyhound when you literally live in the shadows of traditional Cobb football powers Walton and Lassiter. New subdivisions go up, and most of the time those families seem to end up cheering for the Raiders or the Trojans on Friday nights. But the little brother wearing powder blue never gets down. He keeps plugging away. And this year he's in the playoffs for the first time in five years---something even Lassiter can't claim in 2017.
The reason for the pigskin revival at Pope, a place known for it's baseball, softball and wrestling champions? Maybe it's the revamped practice schedule implemented by new head coach Tab Griffin where players rarely stand around without a purpose. Maybe it's the influx of new assistant coaches who were once students at the school themselves. Or maybe it's the dancing. That's right, the dancing.
"At first when I came here practices were dragging," said Griffin. "I was their third head coach in four years so I knew I had to win them over. I told them that football is supposed to be fun. I wanted to get back to having fun and not be so serious all the time. They weren't used to it, so I said fake it 'til you make it for me- and then it kind of became contagious. That gave them the freedom to dance and sing."
At any random Pope practice Griffin might have an assistant coach crank up something with a beat--and it's game on. Call it "Dancing with the Hounds" and now everyone wants to cut in.
"These days it's harder to get kids to come out and play football. It's a tough sport. We were down to 70 kids in our program (9th thru 12th grade) when I took over in March and now we're up to about 99 kids." Griffin told FOX 5 Sports.
So football is fun again at Pope. And Friday night when the fourth seed Greyhounds (4-6, 4-4 in Region 7-AAAAAA) travel to Dacula (6-4, 5-0 in Region 8-AAAAAA) to face a red hot Falcons team they'll do so with a resilient bunch who've overcome 15 season-ending injuries- seven of them to starting players.
Just last week starting guard Grayson York broke his ankle against Northview and was done for the season. In week 5, the Greyhounds lost their senior starting quarterback Campbell Rickers to injury, forcing Jackson Thain, a sophomore with mostly junior varsity experience to take over under center. Thain has been a revelation for the offensive-minded Griffin. A big bodied quarterback in the Tim Tebow mold, he's more likely to run between the tackles than throw a skinny post. Thain led Pope to wins over Dunwoody and Northview, and was part of an amazing comeback against Chattahoochee that fell just short. The Greyhounds were down 39-15 at half in that game, but stormed back before eventually losing a heartbreaker, 46-41.
Two-way senior Xavier O'Neal and sophomore Paris Cameron have combined for 1,800 yards rushing between them so far in 2017, while slot receiver Zach Owens has scored 16 touchdowns, getting touches on the ground and through the air.
Griffin knows how to put his weapons to use. The former Pope student spent the past eight years at Mount Paran Christian Academy as offensive coordinator, helping the Eagles win a Class A Private state championship in 2014. That team scored over 600 points with Griffin calling the shots. Now he returns to his alma mater with a plan. And even though his Greyhounds are a decided underdog against Dacula, Griffin has a message for anyone who thinks these dogs will lay down.
"We've got our work cut out for us. They're big and athletic... but I tell our guys nobody's handing out participation trophies. Don't be satisfied with just making the playoffs... just kind of keep yourself in the ballgame until the fourth quarter and then anything can happen."
If Pope can pull off the upset, they'll be only the third team in school history to make the second round of the GHSA playoffs.
The Greyhounds will hoist their first High 5 Sports Team of the Week trophy Thursday morning on Good Day Atlanta as Paul Milliken and the GDA road crew broadcast a live pep rally live from the Pope gymnasium beginning at 8 a.m. And even if Griffin's team doesn't bring home GHSA hardware this year, his players appreciate the recognition and the chance to be that 'other" team playing postseason football in East Cobb.
"Team of the Week is very special, I don't think we've ever won it before," said senior Xavier O'Neal. "Especially in our first year being back in the playoffs, it's like, really big and it's just hyping up everything around this game."