Mike O’Brien knew he wasn’t in Valdosta any more when he lost a game and didn’t come home to find a “for sale” sign in his yard, he once said.
Jokes aside, O’Brien insists he takes no satisfaction in Valdosta’s latest turmoil, the ousting of Rick Tomberlin, Valdosta’s third coach in seven seasons.
Fired in 2002 despite a 70-20-1 record and a state championship in 1998, O’Brien was hundreds of miles removed from his own Valdosta ordeal Friday night, thriving in Cherokee County, where his Woodstock team is 8-1 and ranked No. 10 in Class AAAAA.
‘’We were just ecstatic to get a coach of his stature at the school, with all he’d accomplished,’’ said Rich Brocker, who was filming Woodstock’s victory over Cherokee from in front of the press box Friday. Blocker was the booster club president in 2002, when O’Brien was hired.
Valdosta has lost more games than Woodstock since O’Brien moved north -- 34 to 33. That’s astounding, funny really, considering that Valdosta has won a record 23 state titles, and O’Brien inherited a team on a 24-game losing streak that had never won a playoff game.
“When I left Valdosta, I felt like we’d done a good job,” O’Brien said. “A lot of people might’ve had different opinions. We felt like we’d got the most out of our kids, and the whole staff loved all those kids as much as anybody could have. We thought we were successful in doing that, but some people thought that we hadn’t, so they chose for me to leave, and that was their decision.”
At Woodstock, O’Brien arrived in a fast-growing community that was hungry to win. Woodstock’s victory in O’Brien’s third game in overtime against Lassiter, ending a 26-game losing streak, was celebrated like a championship. For a change, O’Brien had higher expectations than even the craziest fan.
“He came in here talking about winning state championships and not just winning a game or having a winning record or going to the playoffs,” said Brent Budde, O’Brien’s defensive coordinator. “He has high expectations for this team, and I believe that it has rubbed off onto our players. They believe now that we can win every game.”
O’Brien’s final game at Valdosta was a 15-14 loss to Camden County. It came in the second round. For Valdosta, that wasn’t good enough. A year ago in the quarterfinals, O’Brien traveled to Camden County with Woodstock. Again, he lost by a point, 18-17.
But at Woodstock, that’s a turning point. Camden County went on to win the state title, and Woodstock came home impatient for another chance.
In the weight room last summer, there was a steamy day when everybody was hot and sweaty, fogging up the windows. After the players had left, the coaches discovered the players had written things with their fingers on mirrors: “15-0, state champions.”
“There were quite a few on there,” O’Brien said. “Those thoughts had not been around this place much before. … [The Camden County game] sort of made kids understand that anything is possible, that if you play well and play hard and do what you’re supposed to do, you have a chance to win no matter who you’re playing. Coming off that season, we began to see that we could win a state championship here.”
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