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A fresh approach: Mary G. Montgomery is keeping its talent at home

Mary G. Montgomery’s Shondell Harris, left, and Devin Pettway were offered by Marshall as freshmen and are two examples of the young talent the Vikings are now keeping at home. (Helen Joyce/Call News)


Until Zach Golson was hired to raise it from the dust, the Mary G. Montgomery football program constantly hemorrhaged its lifeblood — the talent from the Semmes park system and Semmes Middle School to other public and private schools which won and offered better exposure for college opportunities.

How else to explain the most damning statistic of the nearly comatose program in the 20 years before Golson? No matter who the coach was — and there were eight of them in that span — the Vikings not only lost 137 games, they weren’t even competitive.

Of those 137 losses, 105 were by double digits and an average losing margin of four touchdowns (27 points).

It was a ruinous cycle: Team loses, coaches change, players leave or stay away, team loses some more. It resulted in two decades without a winning season.

“We’ve had some great coaches come through here but in the past, we didn’t keep the kids home,” MGM principal Chip Menton said. “They’d be at Semmes Middle and then they’d go somewhere else. He’s doing a good job getting those kids in our backyard and keeping them. We’ve got to put that fence up and not let them go anywhere else.”


Closing the gate


While Golson has been masterful at making the X’s and O’s go the way he wants, he has also been effective in shutting that gate and ending an old MGM tradition among the better players called arriving by departing.

It was so bad at one point that some Vikings tried to abandon ship just before kickoff.

“It’s the only place I’ve been where before a game kids would try to sneak out and go home,” former MGM coach Chris Wilson said. “It was a culture of craziness.”

There have been no such defections under Golson’s beneficent blockade. Instead, for perhaps the first time, players are talking about coming to MGM.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if we see guys move in this summer,” Golson said. “We haven’t lost any kids to other schools. We’ve got to try and hold on to our guys in Semmes. Not only that, we’re starting to see kids from all over the city who want to be here and we’re going to go through that process the right way. It’s a transfer portal world.”

Golson is an appealing coach not only because he wins and espouses an exciting offense but because he tries to find a role for every player.

“I don’t want to lose a single kid,” he said. “It hurts me when it happens. We try to find a role for them, special teams or rotational. We try to play fast and keep them fresh, so it forces you to develop guys. We want to try and develop them all the way to the last guy.”

That approach has endeared Golson to his players. In the past, the younger ones often planned their escape around the varsity disaster.

“I saw a real disconnect between the high school and middle school and even the high school to the park,” said Vikings assistant coach Scott Plair, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman who coached the freshman team to an 8-0 finish last season and had coached in the Semmes park leagues since 2017.

“The private school coaches would be at the youth championship games,” Plair said. “You’d never see the Mary Montgomery coaching staff there. When I got here, it was like, ‘We’re the 10th or 11th biggest high school in the state’ and I guess they assumed they would get them.”

Those assumptions turned into an assembly line of failure.

“We’d have four or five park teams playing for the youth football title in Mobile and the middle school would be playing in the championship game, then the high school would go 1-9 and 2-8,” Plair said.

Wilson — who made the playoffs in each of his previous seven years at Washington County and Straughn before coming to Semmes — tried but didn’t get time to address the problem at MGM, being fired after going 0-10 in his only season there in 2017. That year, the middle school team finished 7-1.

“There is not one middle school in Mobile that is a true feeder school,” Wilson said. “Kids from four different addresses can go to Semmes Middle School and then when they go to high school, they can choose any one of those.”


‘That was brilliant’


Golson immediately emphasized building the freshman program and developing the younger players instead of tossing them onto the varsity field before they were ready. He added 80 freshmen to the program last year and will add 75 this season.

“I told Scott we were going to play all the freshmen,” Golson said. “They were going to stick together and learn to win together. We created an eight-game schedule where they had been playing two, three or four games. And we are committing the resources to develop the kids in our program the right way. We could have easily pulled them up to the varsity but we didn’t.”

Plair started establishing relationships with those players by attending every Semmes Middle School game his first year as MGM’s freshman coach.

“I made sure I knew who the kids were and knew who their parents were and loved up on them,” he said. “It helped the parents know, ‘He’s out here talking to our son and wanting him to come to Mary Montgomery and not assuming anything.’

“Last year, we kept the entire (middle school) team, which was about 80 players, except for two boys who were districted to Blount. This year, it’s about the same number, about 75 who have signed up. We had them come over for an early spring practice and let them see how the varsity works.”

Golson’s attitude made a difference with Shondell Harris, the freshman team MVP and a rising sophomore defensive back who has already received an offer from Marshall. In Harris’ eighth-grade year, Semmes Middle School went 8-0 and Golson knew he needed players of that caliber.

“We went 8-0 and we decided to stay together,” Harris said. “We got a new coaching staff. They came to the middle school and introduced themselves.”

Golson’s style quickly buttoned up any chance Harris would transfer.

“I like the way he coaches,” Harris said. “He’s hard on us, then he comes back and loves on us. It’s not just a coach saying he loves you, he calls every day and makes sure you’re all right. He takes care of you. He makes me want to be a better player. Before, I listened but not as well. He slowed things down for me.”

Golson also decided to welcome the freshmen with a ceremony much like college recruits enjoy on signing day.

“We never had anything like that,” Harris said. “It felt like they actually cared about us.”

Plair said the incoming freshmen from Semmes Middle School are welcomed in a ceremony on stage.

“That was coach Golson’s idea,” Plair said. “They got in front of the cameras and they were dressed up. They will have a picture when they came in as freshmen and you bring it back around when they’re signing out of high school.”

It’s likely a method that will be copied by other schools.

“That was brilliant,” said Scott Lesley, who before Golson was the last coach to enjoy a winning season at MGM in 2002.


Seeing the benefits


The Vikings are already seeing the benefits of keeping and developing the freshmen as Harris and linebacker Devin Pettway have both received offers from Marshall.

“You don’t often hear about freshmen getting D-I offers in Mobile, much less two from Mary Montgomery,” Plair said. “It shows we’ve got the talent in Semmes. … There’s a ton of talent coming in and the sky’s the limit their junior and senior years.”

The class with Harris and Pettway is glowing with promise. They were 8-1 as eighth-graders at Semmes Middle School, then 8-0 on MGM’s freshman team.

Harris quickly showed Golson he would not be kept off the field.

“Last spring, he came out and wanted to be a quarterback,” Golson said. “One practice we called for the kickoff coverage team and he ran out there and I stopped him and told him he was a quarterback. He said, ‘Coach, I’m gonna be the first one down there.’ I said, ‘No, you’re a quarterback, go work on some quarterback drills.’ So, he did what I told him. The next day, he’s out there on kickoff coverage again. We couldn’t keep him off the field. He started every game for us on defense.”

Golson and his staff have also built a closer relationship with the Semmes park system, which should reap handsome rewards in the long term.

“The last five or six years, they’ve done a great job,” Golson said. “Scott coached over there and knows a lot of those kids. They’re probably the best park in Mobile now.”


Uniting ‘the square’


But Golson said he still has work to do to unite all the pieces of a successful feeder system.

“Eventually, everybody here is a Viking,” Golson said. “Everything within what I call the square, the walking trail around the school, there are four entities: There are Mary Montgomery Vikings, Semmes Bulldogs, Semmes Colts and Semmes Cardinals. That’s an issue. We want to create a culture where we’re all fighting for each other. We’re close to the middle school being Vikings and we hope to get the elementary schools to be Vikings.”

Former MGM principal Marlon Firle said Golson’s attention to detail was a major reason he believed Golson would be a success when he hired him.

“I was 100 percent confident he could turn the program around as quickly as he did,” Firle said. “He hit the ground running and established a relationship with the middle school and the community right off the bat. He worked 14 to 16 hours a day. He had the work ethic. He wanted to change the perception of the school.”

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