Hapeville Charter's practice field is less than 100 yards long and 50 yards wide, is uneven, has dirt patches and divots and is cutoff by a sidewalk that separates the field and Buffington Road. (Courtesy of Hapeville Charter)

Hapeville Charter does more with less

Like Colquitt County's state-of-the-art $3.7 million indoor practice facility in Moultrie, Hapeville Charter also has an indoor practice facility when the weather conditions are bad.

It’s called the school cafeteria.

If the weather is good, the Hornets practice on a stretch of uneven field of dirt patches and divots that is cut off by Buffington Road, with a sidewalk separating the street from the field. Their field goal posts are two PVC pipes sticking out of the ground, given to them by the neighboring plumbing company.

When Candace Bethea first came to Hapeville (located a few miles from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport) as principal two years ago, she couldn’t make sense of what the football team was doing.

“I saw them out there flipping tires in the parking lot,” said Bethea, who came from Creekside, where she was vice principal when the Seminoles won the 2013 AAAAA title. “I wouldn’t have thought they could be successful because of the challenges, but the players and the staff are able to overcome that.”

The Hornets don’t have a lot, but they more than make do with what they have. They won the Class AA state championship in 2017. One of their standout players was drafted into the NFL in 2018. They have players scattered across premier Power 5 programs, and their current roster is stacked with blue-chip recruits.

“We’ve done more with less since we started,” Hornets coach Winston Gordon said. “We’ve taken on that mindset of us against the world, and we instill confidence in children and once they believe in themselves, they’ll do anything for you.”

Gordon said the lack of facilities doesn’t put Hapeville at a disadvantage, but instead forces the team to work harder and be more creative. It also requires them to be more careful. For instance, because the practice field ends with a road, the team has lost footballs after they were hit by trucks. Passing routes are sometimes limited ... by necessity.

“We’ve got to make sure they don’t run their routes into the street,” Gordon said, only half-joking.

There are no painted lines on the practice field, which isn’t 100 yards long or 50 yards wide. The Hornets do have a two-man sled and a two-man chute, just not a lot of room to use them. They have a weight room, but it’s small.

“It’s probably about the size of some of these coaches’ offices,” Gordon said.

Hapeville Charter borrows the stadiums of nearby high schools because they don’t have their own. The Hornets play at Grady, Banneker or Lakewood and schedule most non-region games on the road. Even in 2017, when Hapeville reached the AA title game, icy weather robbed them of the chance to play in nearby Mercedes Benz-Stadium. Hapeville wound up playing 120 miles away in Tiger, where it defeated Rabun County 35-23 for the program’s only championship.

What the Hornets do have is a leader in Gordon, who knows the game of football. He is the only coach of the program, which he founded in 2011. A 1991 graduate of Clewiston High, which is about 65 miles west of West Palm Beach, Gordon comes from a football-rich south Florida area referred to as “The Muck,” which consists of Belle Glade, Clewiston, Immokalee and Pahokee, and has produced NFL stars including Randy Dixon, Edgerrin James, Janoris Jenkins and Fred Taylor.

Winston Gordon (center, hat) has coached the Hornets since the program's inaugural season in 2011. (Adam Krohn)

After playing at Clewiston, Gordon was a defensive end and outside linebacker at Savannah State, where he later began his coaching career as a graduate assistant.

Gordon and his staff have been churning out plenty of next-level talent. Arden Key, a former LSU standout who plays defensive end for the Oakland Raiders, is a shining example. Linebacker Caleb Kelly is at Stanford. Defensive end Kingsley Enagbare is at South Carolina. Defensive back Chris Smith is at Georgia. They also produce Ivy League-caliber student-athletes like Rory Starkey, who plays receiver at Penn.

This year’s team has three four-star recruits — South Carolina commitment and senior receiver Rico Powers, receiver Jaquez Smith and defensive end Zavier Carter, both from the class of 2021.

The Hornets are 7-1-1, 6-0 in 6-AA and clinched their fourth consecutive region title last week. They’re seeking their second title in three seasons, and senior running back Marcus Carroll, who has been in the Hapeville Charter school system since sixth grade, said the expectation is to win the championship.

“It’s a wasted season if we don’t win it all,” said Carroll, a Coastal Carolina commitment. “We’re getting better on offense, and we’ve got a strong defense, so I feel like we can go all the way.”

As for the lack of facilities, Carroll shrugs it off.

“We focus on the little things,” he said. “The fact that we don’t have anything ... that just makes us want to do better. I feel like if I was somewhere else, I might not be as talented because the coaches here care and focus on everything.”

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