Braves’ turnaround still bittersweet

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 5, 2003

LORMAN &045; When the clock went to zeroes on Saturday for the game and what turned out to be the regular season, Alcorn head coach Johnny Thomas heard the boos.

Fortunately, it was nothing directed at him.

The voices of disapproval were directed at Jackson State head coach James Bell after the Tigers finished the season a dismal 2-10 with the 49-25 loss to the Braves at Veterans Memorial Stadium for their first loss to Alcorn in nine years. Some fans even donned T-shirts with &uot;To Hell with Bell&uot; printed on the back.

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Thomas endured similar treatment in 2000 when his club went 0-11, but on Saturday the team finished a string of playing its best ball and won its seventh game, the most since the eight wins in 1994 when Steve McNair and the Braves last downed JSU.

And it was Thomas who offered support to Bell as the season came to a merciful close Saturday. Thomas has been there, and although his Braves came up short in their quest for the SWAC Championship, he proved those critics wrong.

&uot;We talked,&uot; Thomas said after Saturday’s game. &uot;In the coaching profession, we’re all great friends. We all go through those things but at different points in time. Most people don’t understand God has His way of humbling a program and humbling everyone within that program.

&uot;We didn’t attack the media about anything (in 2000). During those times of uncertainty, you never heard me say anything negative about anybody. I was always positive. God will humble you to the point that when you experience that kind of success, you can’t boast in it or say, ‘I told you so’ because you could easily go back where you came from.&uot;

That’s not in the immediate plans for the ASU program, especially if any of the returning players have anything to do with it. The season did mark a huge turnaround for the Braves and had them in the running for a postseason bid even after the game ended Saturday.

They needed a Texas Southern win over Alabama State, but that didn’t happen. The Hornets &045; who beat Alcorn back on Sept. 14 49-28 &045; finished tied in the standings atop the Eastern Division but got the nod for the SWAC Championship based on head-to-head competition.

&uot;We’re disappointed, especially at a time when we feel we were playing extremely well,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;The seniors wanted to be champions and have the opportunity to become champions. We were playing so well at the end of the season &045; we were unbeatable. I hate to miss that SWAC Championship against Grambling or Southern.&uot;

The title game snub was disappointing after the team finished the season on a five-game winning streak, their longest since the 1984 black college national championship team won nine straight under Hall of Fame coach Marino Casem.

The Braves finished the season playing their best ball and were light years away from the 2-5 start that had them tumbling in the standings and fans wondering if Thomas was going to keep his job. It was that stretch when the Braves lost at Alabama State thanks to three interceptions and three fumbles.

&uot;That (loss) was the deciding factor,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;But right now we know what it takes to win &045; that’s the good thing about it. We can use Alabama State as a motivational tool to get the guys to realize that you’ve got to beat your conference foes. I always tell the guys don’t depend on anybody but yourself because it may not get done.&uot;

It’ll be a lesson learned for the returning players for 2004, a group that will miss the presence of a productive senior class this past season that played critical roles on both side of the ball. The biggest holes will be on defense with defensive tackles Bryan Williams and Eric Roach leaving along with middle linebacker Omega Logan and defensive backs Tyrone Parsons and Tim Batts.

The offense is losing linemen Zephaniah Smalley, LeDarien Strauss and running backs Sidney Dumas and Andrew Burks.

&uot;We’re losing leadership,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;They’ve provided quality leadership consistently for us, and I’m going to miss their mental toughness and their resiliency to bounce back from adversities. Those guys have experienced adversities ever since they were freshmen. That’s going to be the most critical thing to do &045; pick up from where those guys left off.&uot;

Next year the Braves will need some playmakers to take on a bigger role within the team, including key defensive players Dwan Wilson and linebacker and Michael Howleit at defensive end. Howleit emerged early in the season in his first year as a starter, but Wilson ended up being a key player after missing games early in the season with a knee injury.

Howleit and Wilson combined for 10 sacks and 27 tackles for loss.

&uot;He’s worked hard to get quicker and some size,&uot; Logan said of Wilson, a Tylertown product. &uot;He wants to be the best in everything he tries to do on the field. Dwan is a football player at heart all the way. I tell him all the time he’s going to be the leader of the team next year.&uot;

On offense the Braves will have quarterback Donald Carrie back for his senior season after he threw for a career-high 2,833 yards to move up to second on the school’s all-time passing yardage leaders.

The offense also will return all of its receivers &045; Corvin Johnson, Kelvin Clark, Nate Hughes and Charlie Spiller &045; after all four emerged in their first season of significant playing time.

&uot;If they can keep their heads on straight, we’ll have our receivers returning, and our quarterback will be returning,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;We should be much better in that area next year, but you never know what might happen.&uot;