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Football preview: South side rises as teams make noise despite challenges
Todd Wall’s alarm buzzes at 6 a.m., and Harrison’s quarterback is at it again.
The routine begins with weights before school, a full day in class, football practice, work at Pizza Hut until 10, homework and a race to sleep as much as possible before the alarm sounds again.
It’s not that Wall doesn’t want a little down time in the evenings, but he’s a self-provider and the car payment, insurance and cell phone bill won’t wait.
“Sometimes I’m tired out of my mind,” said Wall, who carries a 3.4 GPA to go along with his full-time job and position as the Panthers’ offensive leader. “But it pays off. I definitely wish I could go back to not having anything to pay, but it’s part of growing up.”
Such a schedule and responsibilities are realities for many students at Harrison, and for many other programs that operate in the south side of Colorado Springs. Yet despite the socioeconomic challenges — or perhaps because of them — the area is turning into a football hotbed in the region.
Widefield is coming off its first league title since 1996 and returns one of the area’s most dynamic players in running back Marquis Coddington. Mesa Ridge hasn’t had a losing season since 2008 and has produced two of the state’s most prolific runners in the past three years with Philip Rhodes and Devante Johnson. New Sierra coach Dean Huffman has the school eyeing a return to the prominence it enjoyed in the middle of the last decade as he digs in to build a program that starts in the middle schools.
And there’s Fountain-Fort Carson, the south end’s standard bearer, which has adjusted to its placement in 5A with its first playoff victory at that level and brings back a backfield as talented as any in the state to go with coach Mitch Johnson’s traditionally solid — and fast — defense.
Finally, Harrison figures to be a 3A contender after a 7-3 season a year ago in which the losses came to teams now in 4A, and each setback came after the Panthers held a second-half lead.
Yes, it seems to be prosperous times for an area rarely associated with that adjective.
“I feel like when your financial situation is a burden, you’ve got something inside you that makes you want to work harder,” said Harrison defensive end Darius Graves, who had eight sacks last year as a sophomore. “I think everyone understands everyone else’s situation. That just correlates into how we play.”
Harrison’s particular makeup stands out from the rest of the area. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics updated through the 2008-09 school year, the student body is made up of 74 percent minorities and 71 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Contrast that with Pine Creek, one of the region’s most affluent schools and the unmatched football power over the past five years, which has a makeup that is 84 percent white and just 3 percent of students qualifying for federal lunch assistance.
For coach Al Melo, Harrison is his type of place.
Melo’s parents left Cuba for Miami in 1962 and sent their son to a school in an impoverished, racially diverse area. And before arriving in Colorado Springs, Melo taught at a school in Arizona with a similar makeup.
So the challenges — players not knowing how to put pads in their pants or even which way to wear a helmet and two-a-day practices rendered impossible because the bus schedule doesn’t allow it — are nothing new to Melo.
“It’s good to see the south side of Colorado Springs get some little recognition, a little bit of love,” Melo said. “The schools down here and the coaches down here in this part of town work hard, and the kids do too. We’ve got some good schools and some good kids down here. It would be nice if some more people knew that.”
It will be hard to miss the football progress if things go to plan.
Graves and his twin brother, Demetrius, could emerge among the top players in 3A. Both are track standouts and will start in the offensive backfield, while Darius figures to continue to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
The juniors find no shortage of competition between themselves.
“In class we see who can get the highest GPA, before bed we see who can get the highest number of pushups,” Darius said, noting the pushup totals can climb as high as 200 in a night. “Things like that. Who’s the fastest; everything.”
Darius, by the way, may be one of few in this city with career aspirations that include becoming a business manager, an accountant or an NFL player; and who possesses the intelligence and athletic ability to make all seem perfectly reasonable.
The Panthers will be bigger on the line than a year ago and have speed everywhere. One of the question marks will be Wall, who takes over after two years as the junior varsity quarterback.
But when it comes to Wall, there’s no doubt he’ll be driven enough to succeed.
“I’m not going to say I’m not nervous,” said Wall, who participates in the school’s 21st Century program and will have a year’s worth of college credits at graduation. “I think that we have a great shot at the playoffs this year as long as we keep our heads in the right direction. We have great skill on this team right now.”
Just don’t ask Melo how many wins the team might pile up this season. His five years at the school and a lifetime in similar situations have taught him to keep perspective when making such goals.
“The goal is just to keep developing young kids and teach them the right way to do things in school and as men,” said Melo, speaking for himself, coaches on the south side of Colorado Springs and, really, educators everywhere. “I think if you do that, winning football games will come. If they don’t, you win anyway because you’ve got good people.”