Class 2A blog: Columbia continues silencing doubters

Eagles 2-0 as underdogs, have soared from preseason unranked to No. 8
The Columbia Eagles weight room was funded by the rapper Future, through his nonprofit Freewishes, and completed in April. Future attended Columbia and remains friends with Eagles coach Greg Barnett. (Adam Krohn/for the AJC)

Credit: Adam Krohn

Credit: Adam Krohn

The Columbia Eagles weight room was funded by the rapper Future, through his nonprofit Freewishes, and completed in April. Future attended Columbia and remains friends with Eagles coach Greg Barnett. (Adam Krohn/for the AJC)

With their 26-21 win over 4A’s Wooldand-Stockbridge, already the Columbia Eagles (2-0) have notched two wins as underdogs, earned statewide recognition as GHSF Daily’s Team of the Week and have catapulted to No. 8 in the rankings after being left off the preseason polls.

Though a surprise to some on the outside, the Eagles’ recent success is not an anomaly. The program, under Greg Barnett, has been working toward relevance since he arrived ahead of the 2020 season.

Last season the Eagles went 8-4 and won a playoff game for the first time since 1997, and their wins were the most since 2005. However, Columbia is still known as a basketball school with legendary coach Dr. Phil McCrary and his five state titles, so pollsters took a wait-and-see approach.

The Eagles opened the season with a deep-south road win, 13-10 over 7A powerhouse Camden County in a game they were projected to lose by 34 points. That moved them inside the top 10, where they haven’t been since 1997.

Last week, they beat a Woodland team that was favored by 2.

“A lot of people in the media and elsewhere overlooked us, so we took the underdog role,” Barnett said “Now the spotlight is on us and the cat is out of the bag, so we’re just going to keep doing what we do and take it one game at a time.”

Barnett, just missed the playing on the 1997 team, attending Columbia beginning in eighth grade and playing for the Eagles from 1998-2002. While he was there, the Eagles went through three coaches and had one winning season, his senior year, when they finished 7-2.

The program was mediocre or worse until Barnett returned, going 75-125 with no playoff wins from 2003-2019. He always saw potential for the football team, especially when seeing what the basketball program has accomplished over the years, including five state titles from 2006-2012. Not to mention, the football team has produced plenty of next-level talent over the years. For instance, Barnett’s biggest influence was teammate Kendall Newson, who played for Middle Tennessee and the Miami Dolphins.

“We’ve always had the talent,” Barnett said. “We just haven’t put together a string of good years. Everyone knows our legendary basketball coach, and that program has always been the standard. We’re trying to share the torch with them, and be like them as well.”

Barnett credits the teams’ community outreach — and the community’s receptiveness — as the biggest contributing factor for their turnaround.

“The community support has been paying dividends,” he said. “Merchants, barbers, places like that, they know who are kids are and they’re helping out. Social media helps with that as well. We share anything we’re doing that’s positive and on the up-and-up to let people know what we’re doing.

“It’s a new time here in Columbia.”

A commitment to accountability has also changed the culture. Barnett provides players with weekly grades based on their performance.

To that end, they spend a lot more time working out thanks to a new weight room provided to the Eagles via a good friend of Barnett’s — former Columbia student Nayvadius Wilburn, better know as rapper Future.

Wilburn, a former Eagle basketball player in the late 90s and early 2000s, funded the weight room through his nonprofit organization Freewishes, and the project was completed in April.

“We’re great friends and he still pays attention to what we’re doing here despite his schedule,” Barnett said. “He reached out and, with his nonprofit, he’s always doing things in the community to help the young and the elderly. Like, for example, right now he’s building a STEM lab for Bessie Branham Rec Center. He got with my booster club and there was a need (for a weight room upgrade) and he came in, surveyed the area and got it done for me. So, that was a blessing.”

(For more on Barnett’s friendship with Future, listen to Episode 46 of The Class 2A Blogcast.)

Barnett said he was happy his program is getting recognized for its recent success but knows the Eagles have a lot of work to do. They compete in Region 5 with ELCA and Callaway, both of which are ranked along with Columbia, making it the only region in 2A with three ranked teams.

When asked if winning region was a realistic goal, Barnett didn’t flinch.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Our region is a gauntlet, but we definitely feel like we’re overlooked. We’re already hearing people giving it to ELCA or Callaway, with us taking third or fourth. I try not to read too much into the blogs or the media. I just worry about my guys. I know we have a good team. I just want them to continue to exemplify what it is to be a Columbia Eagle, and that’s just to rise above. We’re faced with so many adverse moments inside and outside of school, so we just have to have tunnel vision, block all the noise out and just stay focused at the task of hand.”

The Eagles have a short week and play former Region 6-2A rival Washington (0-2) on Thursday at Avondale Stadium.