Courtesy of Pebblebrook Athletics

Class AAAA blog: Struggling Gilmer pursues turnaround under Saunders

The Gilmer Bobcats’ 30-game losing streak gives them the inglorious ownership of the longest active-losing streak in the entire state of Georgia heading into the 2019 season. Despite the discouraging results seen over their three-straight winless seasons, however, there is fresh excitement surrounding the program and its new head coach.

This past December, Kevin Saunders left Pebblebrook High School and headed north to Elijay to take over the struggling Gilmer program. Saunders has a history of leading turnaround efforts, and he made a name for himself as a state championship head coach in Virginia long before he elevated the Pebblebrook program and turned it around. His time in Virginia included coaching stops at Virginia Tech, Radford, Gretna, Osborne and J.J. Kelly. He also coached at Shelby Valley in Kentucky before making his way to Georgia for the first time in 2014 when he accepted the head coaching position at Cross Keys High School. 

“I’ve had some chances to come down to Georgia to coach before, but it just never worked out until the Cross Keys job,” said Saunders. “My dad’s health was bad and he was living in Marietta at the time, so that was another factor for why I came down here.” 

After a season with the Indians, Saunders accepted the Pebblebrook job where he would lead the Falcons to three straight postseasons for the first time in 15 years. 

“Pebblebrook really taught me that I have had a plan all along,” said Saunders. “Every stop has always been a learning experience that prepares me for the next experience. I’ve been fortunate to understand what it is like to take over programs that have been really bad and turn them around and make them competitive again. It’s usually accomplished through working hard and those kids at Pebblebrook worked really hard. I enjoyed my time there and it’s one of the best stops I’ve ever had.”

Make no mistake, building back the Gilmer program is going to be especially challenging. Every one of its games went to a running clock in 2017, and the Bobcats were outscored by 47.1 points per game. Gilmer cut that deficit this past season, but was still outscored by 27.7 per game. Most of last year’s starters have graduated, so now Saunders will be working with a roster that has very few players that have ever even competed in what could resemble a competitive four-quarter varsity football game. 

Still, there are also reasons to believe that a turnaround may occur in the not so distant future. The program produced three straight playoff berths as recently as 2012-14, and it only has one winless season outside of its current three-year winless streak in its entire 64-year history.

“Everyone wants to win here and everyone is willing to do what it takes to win,” said Saunders. “The kids are excited; the community is excited. We have outstanding facilities as well. Also, it’s a one school county, so from the Superintendent down, they are really supportive of their kids, not just in football, but in all areas. They want to see these kids succeed on and off the field and there is a real commitment here to make everything top notch. That is one of the things that intrigued me the most about the opportunity to coach here.” 

Saunders has also made several key hires that he says gives him one of the strongest surrounding coaching staffs he’s ever worked with. Among them is Adam Wharton, who Saunders coached with and coached in Virginia before Wharton joined the coaching staff at Pickens High School, one of Gilmer’s Region 6-AAAA opponents this upcoming season. Now, Wharton is Gilmer’s new defensive coordinator, but his role in the weight room is also expected to have a major impact. 

“He is probably one of the best strength coaches around,” said Saunders. “He helped get Pickens to where they are with his program. He’s top notch. He’s Olympic certified in all the certifications that you need to be a strength coach. He’s got them all. I think it’s incredible, the type of impact that a great strength and conditioning program can have. And it’s not just the football program, but everything. Adam is all about making better athletes and better kids and better people. So he’s not just making these kids bigger, he is making them better overall athletes. He teaches them how to run, how to stop and change direction. Kids don’t do a lot of that anymore and they aren’t outside running around like they used to be. Now, you have to teach them how to do that and how to keep growing and getting better at it. It’s impressive to watch. The kids like him. They are getting after it and it’s more than football players getting after it.”

Saunders will get to coach his stepson this upcoming season, and he has spent time looking back at film from last year to get a head start on the evaluation process. The real evaluation, however, will be this spring when he and the staff can see the kids compete with pads on. 

“The evaluation process is going to be huge this spring,” said Saunders. “I think one of the things I’ve always been able to do that has helped me, is putting kids in the best position to play and benefit the football team. I don’t like playing a kid that says he wants to play quarterback so he just sits back there as a backup. I want to get these kids contributing and competing. All of them. So we will try to put them in the best spots that we can. That’s why this spring is going to be so important.”  

The Bobcats will start their spring practice on May 1, and will finish on Friday, May 17 with a scrimmage against St. Francis at home. Saunders is also hoping that the spring will help build back the confidence that has been dispirited by the last three seasons.

“There was no confidence to be found when I got here,” said Saunders. “Their confidence was absolutely none. So we have to try to make that happen. It’s going to start in the weight room with agilities and mat drills and all that. But during spring practice, we’ve got to get these kids to start gaining confidence and to taste a little success so we can keep building it from there. I think that our schedule isn’t overwhelming by any means so we should be competitive. I think there is a chance to win, because Gilmer has won in the past; they have just forgotten that. Gilmer has to become a physical football team again. That’s how they won when Wes Tankersley was there (2008-14).”

*Saunders is one of three new head coaches in Region 6 this year: Jeff Nelson stepped in for Chris Parker at defending Region Champion Pickens. Ridgeland is still searching for a head coach after Cortney Braswell’s departure to accept a position at the University of Louisville. 

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