Stephenson coach puts players ahead of title

It might not be what his fan base wants to hear right now, but Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell says his team had a great season. For one thing, Stephenson has 16 seniors with scholarship offers.

“If I had a choice [between that and a state title], I’m going to take the 16 full-scholarship offers,’’ Gartrell said. “Winning a state championship, that’s our No. 1 priority, but there are more important things in the long run. … I’ll be down for a couple of days, but all I have to do is look at what we’ve accomplished and get over it and go right back to work.’’

Stephenson, metro Atlanta’s top program that has never won a state championship, lost to Colquitt County 22-21 on Friday night at Hallford Stadium in the second round of the state playoffs.

Colquitt County (10-2) is the seventh South Georgia team to eliminate Stephenson in the past nine years. Stephenson (11-1) was ranked fifth in Class AAAAA.

‘’You’re always going to be judged on your titles, and we haven’t won one, so we don’t expect to be talked about among the great teams until we do,’’ Gartrell said. “Those expectations aren’t just around the state. Our community is hungry for a state championship. That’s the only thing that’s left for our program that we haven’t accomplished.’’

The question remains: What keeps Stephenson from claiming the big prize.

There are 32 Stephenson alumni on college football rosters this fall. Only Camden County, with 33, has more. Gartrell believes his staff doesn’t get enough credit for developing its talent and ensuring their players have the academic requirements for college.

As for falling short over the years, he believes a couple of Stephenson’s better teams didn’t have enough depth or balance. Stephenson is a smaller AAAAA school that is eligible to play in a lower classification in 2010.

Other Stephenson teams lacked unity or chemistry, he said. Gartrell doesn’t believe that was the case this season.

“Is this the best team we’ve had talent-wise? Maybe not,’’ Gartrell said. “Is it the best chemistry-wise? Maybe so.’’

This team fought until the end, driving over 80 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, but lost on a field goal in the final three minutes.

What Stephenson almost never lacks is high-end players.

On the 2009 Stephenson team, those with major Division I-A offers are defensive tackle Michael Thornton (uncommitted), linebackers Tyrone Corneleus (Miami) and Jabari Johnson (Kentucky) and defensive back Kenneth Ladler (Vanderbilt) on the defense and running back Raymond Sanders and tight end Ronnie Shields (both Kentucky) on the offense.

Gartrell’s 2005 team had Perry Riley and Kelvin Sheppard, who are starting linebackers at LSU, and Jermaine Cunningham, an all-SEC defensive end at Florida. Marcus Ball, who signed with Florida State, was the Class AAAAA defensive player of the year.

In 2002, Stephenson had Reggie Ball (Georgia Tech), Kregg Lumpkin (Georgia), TJ Gartrell (Georgia) and Roderick Rogers (Wisconsin) as seniors. Michael Grant (Arkansas) and Josh Johnson (Georgia) were juniors.

Gartrell says those are points of pride, not regret.

“I’d love to win a state championship more than a lot of things, but I’m having fun doing what we’re doing and enjoying the progress we’re making in these kids’ lives,’’ Gartrell said. “What difference does it make if you win a state championship and your kids can’t go to college or go on to be productive citizens?’’

Produced by Georgia High School Football Daily

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