A year after a winless middle school season, Sterlington's freshman football class has grown from 8 to 21.
While Sterlington High School was on its way to capturing the first state football championship in school history, Sterlington Middle School was in the midst of a rocky season.
A perennial seventh and eighth grade power, the SMS Panthers were winless in 2016. Making matters worse, only eight eighth-graders finished the season.
Though few outside of the two schools noticed, SMS' dreadful season was a cause for concern at Sterlington High for obvious reasons. A weak feeder program with small classes doesn't bode well for the future of the high school program.
Upon being promoted to head coach at SHS last winter, the incoming freshman class was one of Lee Doty's biggest concerns. Slowly, the freshman class began to grow.
"We went to the junior high last year and talked with them," Doty said. "We knew we had to go find some kids, but some of them just showed up on their own. We started the summer with 12-15 kids. Word spread, and we had people coming out all summer."
By the time the Panthers opened preseason camp, the freshman class was 21 strong.
"Getting 21 freshmen was a coup for us," Doty said. "The key is now that we have them, we have to keep them out."
As part of the junior varsity team, the freshmen have helped the Panthers to a 2-1-1 record, including back-to-back victories over Cedar Creek and Oak Grove.
"They have won two in a row," Doty said. "They are learning how to win."
As a whole, the freshman class remains a work in progress.
"We really don't know much about their talent level, but every week we can find a freshman that's gotten better," Doty said. "They are definitely a developmental group, but they sure work hard."
Doty is confident the hard work will pay off down the road.
"We're glad to have them," Doty said. "Once they get a little older, I think they are going to be just like the upperclassmen we've had. We look forward to seeing them develop and becoming players for us in a couple of years."
Six freshmen looked back on their eighth grade year at SMS — some played football, some didn't — and shared their thoughts on their long-term plans for the sport.
Matthew Miers, Outside Linebacker
Given SMS' history, Miers went into the season with high expectations. However, his optimism was quickly vanquished.
"At the beginning of the season, I thought we were going to be pretty good, but as soon as the season started it was like nobody really cared," Miers said. "Everybody lost faith in our team."
Down the road at Sterlington High, things were considerably better.
"What makes it ironic is the high school team won the state championship," Miers said.
Finding a silver lining in what was a bad situation, Miers points out that the shortage of eighth-graders opened the door for the seventh-graders to get on the field a year early.
"Since there weren't many of us, I think it helped the grade behind us because so many of them were able to play last year," Miers said.
Miers says his love for the game kept him motivated throughout the forgettable season.
"The desire to play kept me going," Miers said. "To play the game of football, you have to be a little crazy, and you have to have the want to."
Martavious Norman, Offensive Lineman
Norman's reason for playing football in the first place differs from his teammates. Because of his size — he is currently listed at six feet even, 265 pounds — Norman was expected to play.
"I was kind of forced to play," said Norman, who strapped on the pads for the first time as a seventh-grader. "I really didn't want to play, but my aunt wanted me to play football and get a scholarship."
As the losses mounted last season, Norman's desire to play was tested once again.
"A lot of people encouraged me to stay and get better throughout the year," Norman said. "Last season was kind of hard, but we got through it. I'm glad I stuck it out.
"Now, we have to be strong and do better in our next grade."
Though his football career got off to a late start, the nimble Norman has potential. As an example of his athletic ability, he competed in the shot put and ran for the 4 x 100-meter relay team in the eighth grade.
For Norman, football was an acquired taste.
"I didn't like it at first, but I like it a lot better now," Norman said.
Still, there are times when his inexperience shows.
"I really like the agilities we do, but I don't understand the plays," Norman said. "The coaches show us what to do in practice, but sometimes I don't understand."
As for his long-term plans to play football, Norman is non-committal.
"We'll see how it goes," Norman said. "This might be my last year and it might not."
Thomas Brown Jr., Cornerback
Like the vast majority of his classmates, Brown opted not to play football as an eighth-grader.
"I had a lot of things on my plate last year," Brown said.
Brown did go out for track, setting the SMS school record in the 100-meter hurdles.
Despite the Panthers' hardships, he regrets skipping the year of football.
"I felt bad because I wasn't doing my part to contribute," Brown said. "I'm glad I came back and started playing again."
Brown, who began playing football as an 8-year old while attending elementary school in Florida, never intended to give up football permanently.
"I played football for the three or four years, then I was out of football for three or four years," Brown said. "My mom and dad (Donna and Thomas Brown Sr.) always wanted me to play. My dad played at Huntington High School in Shreveport. I had always planned on playing again."
Back from the layoff, Brown says he has caught on quickly.
"Football was never that complicated to me," Brown said.
Now that he's playing again, Brown has no intentions of giving up football any time soon.
"Make no mistake, I like the sport a lot," Brown said. "I plan on playing all the way through 12th grade. I may run track, too, but I am definitely going to play football."
Joby Guthrie, Offensive Lineman
When the team reported for preseason practice, Guthrie was confident the Panthers would have a good season. His confidence was short-lived.
"Going into the year, we thought we were going to be pretty good," Guthrie recalled. "Then we lost our running back, Zach Crain, the first game of the year. When Zach got hurt, our season went south from there."
As the losses mounted, the comments from their peers only made matters worse.
"People kept telling us we were the worst eighth grade team Sterlington Middle School has had — ever," Guthrie said. "All of the teams before us had been so good. For us to go out there and lay an egg the way we did, it was hard to deal with. You start questioning yourself."
Meanwhile, Sterlington's high school state championship has heightened the interest level in football among the freshman class.
"In the seventh grade, we had a pretty big team, but a lot of them decided to quit in the eighth grade," Guthrie said. "A lot of them came back this year. When the high school team won the state championship, I think a lot of them got interested in playing football again."
When the JV Panthers defeated Cedar Creek on Monday, September 18, the freshmen celebrated their first victory in two years. It didn't matter to Guthrie and his classmates whether anyone noticed or not.
"That was our first time to walk off the football field with a win since the seventh grade," Guthrie said. "It felt really good to finally win a game. That's one of the best feelings you can have — winning."
Guthrie says he is committed to finishing out his high school career.
"I plan on playing all the way through high school," he said.
Matthew King, Defensive Tackle
King spotted some ominoussigns early on as the 2016 approached.
"When we started practice, we didn't have many people on the team, so we all started trying to get other people to play," King said. "Most of them didn't want to. They would say they didn't have time or didn't like the coach — those were their excuses."
As the season wore on, King says he never considered quitting to be an option.
"I never thought about it," King said. "I have always loved football."
King says his favorite part of football is the daily grind.
"I like lifting weights," King said. "What I like about football is if you work hard enough and love what you are doing, you don't have to rely on raw talent. If you work hard every day in practice, you can be better than the person beside you."
King, who sees considerable action as a backup defensive lineman, hopes to contribute to the varsity next year.
"I would say that I have a chance to be on the field by the end of my sophomore year or the beginning of my junior year," King said.
King's ultimate goal is to help the Panthers win another state title.
"I've been playing football since I was 7, going back to my first year of flag," King said. "Football means a lot to me. I'm in it for the long haul. I want to bring another state championship back to Sterlington."
Michael Patton, Free Safety
Patton is in his rookie season.
He played youth baseball and hockey while residing in Boston, but was out of sports entirely for four years after moving to Sterlington in the fifth grade.
"I quit playing baseball because I got hit in the face and brook my cheekbone,"Patton said.
His reasons for giving up hockey upon moving to Louisiana are self-explanatory.
Patton never seriously considered playing football prior to this season.
"It wasn't my hobby," Patton said regarding his reasons for not playing junior high football.
Patton decided to give the sport a try over the summer.
"My friends wanted me to play," Patton said. "It's high school, so I have to do something."
Despite his inexperience, Patton says he has caught on quickly.
"Football is fun, and it's easy to learn," Patton said. "To me, the tackling is the hardest part. In hockey, you body check, but you can't wrap up."
Though currently on the second team, Patton has set his goals high.
"I hope to play in college, and maybe even the NFL," he said.